German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

In an interview that appeared on YouTube on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country was doing everything possible to avert an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea. Her minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, rushed to point out that Berlin was not playing a mediator role in the North Korean nuclear crisis at the moment, even though he conceded that the German government was in touch with Washington, Beijing and Seoul over the issue.

But while leaders in Berlin say they are working under the radar to ease  tensions in Northeast Asia, German-made arms continue to make their way to South Korea.

Bunker-buster missiles

This month, South Korea initiated procedures to acquire 90 more Taurus-class long-range air-to-ground missiles, which are produced by German-Swedish defense producer Taurus Systems GmbH. Seoul ordered 170 Taurus precision-guided missiles in 2013. The first batch of them was delivered to the Republic of Korea Air Force last October, while the remaining projectiles are expected to be transferred by 2018.

The Taurus missile has a range of 500 kilometers. It can be fitted on South Korean F-15K fighter jets to strike key facilities in the North. The German-built projectiles are part of Seoul’s missile detection and strike system designed to destroy North Korean rockets and long-range artillery before they can be fired against South Korean territory, Yonhap News Agency reports.

As well, the Taurus missile can be deployed to take out radar stations, command, control and communication centers, ammunition storage sites, as well as bridges, runways and vessels in ports. More important, it could be used to try to eliminate the North Korean leadership, as it can pierce bunkers and other hardened and deeply buried military targets on the ground, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

Germany is South Korea’s largest arms supplier after the United States. From 2011 to 2016, German defense contractors sold to Seoul US$1.1 billion worth of weaponry, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In this period, South Korean armed forces received from Germany surface-to-air missile systems and diesel engines for patrol vessels, tanks and self-propelled howitzers.

It is worth noting that Seoul’s next-generation submarines program is based on German shipbuilder HDW’s Type 214 boats, while the ROK  Navy currently has a fleet of nine Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric attack submarines, a variant of Germany’s Type 209 vessels.

Influencing Asian geopolitics

Germany is not the only European Union country to arm the South Korean military. Between 2018 and 2019, the ROK Air Force will obtain four multi-role tanker transport aircraft from Airbus Defence and Space, a division of European consortium Airbus Group. In Seoul’s view, the refueling tankers will facilitate the air force’s missions over North Korea in the event of an emergency.

In June, France’s Dassault Aviation delivered to Seoul the first of two signals intelligence aircraft based on the Falcon 2000 business jet. Further, since Kim Jong-un took the reins of the North Korean regime in 2011, the Netherlands has provided the ROK Navy with its Goalkeeper close-in weapons system, which is used for short-range defense of ships; Sweden has supplied Seoul with fire-control and artillery-locating radars; and Britain has exported anti-submarine warfare helicopters to the Asian country.

So, while the European Union says it is willing to make its technical expertise available to Seoul in possible negotiations with Pyongyang, the European defense industry has seized on the troubles affecting the Korean Peninsula.

The EU wants to have more say in Asia-Pacific affairs, as – EU policymakers say – this is in its own interest. As a result, Brussels is putting itself forward as a facilitator in a revived negotiating process to rein in North Korean nuclear and ballistic ambitions.

However, the defense-industry policy of some EU countries risks undermining the European bloc’s attempts to play a role in the inter-Korean row, notably if its defense companies continue to market offensive weapons to South Korea.

North Korea is certainly keeping tabs on Germany’s deliveries of lethal weapons to its southern neighbor. Last year, Pyongyang urged Berlin to cancel the supply of Taurus missiles to Seoul, saying the arms sale would worsen tensions on both sides of the 38th Parallel, according to Russian media reports.

The reality is that the shipment of weapons remains the best tool at Europe’s disposal to influence the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, no matter what EU diplomats – or German leaders – officially declare.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.