A little over two weeks ago, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) launched its fourth 1,800 ton German Type 214 submarine in a ceremony attended by President Park Geun-hye. Featuring modern Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) and the advanced ISUS 90 submarine combat system, the new boat of the Son Won-ill class brings up the total number of modern South Korean submarines to 13: nine 1,200 ton German Type 209 Chang Bogo class and four Son Won-ill. And South Korea has apparently already started the design phase of a new, indigenous 3,000 tonne submarine, with the goal of having at least nine such boats in service by 2030. According to navy sources, they’ll be equipped with a vertical launch missile capability, dramatically improving South Korea’s long-range strike capabilities.
The submarine launch is indicative of South Korea’s prospective emergence over the next decade as one of the ‘world’s premier middle power navies.’ Back in 1995, then-President Kim Young-Sam approved a plan by then chief of naval operations, Admiral An Byoung-Tae, to begin the long-term development of a ‘blue water navy’, capable of extended operations within East Asia and short-term operations in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.
Since then, the ROKN has made some progress towards achieving this goal. Supported by the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, it has acquired an array of modern surface vessels and submarines. Its major surface combatants comprise six modern 4,500 ton KDX-2 and two 7,500 ton KDX-3 destroyers, providing the ROKN with substantial offensive and defensive capabilities.
For example, the KDX-3 multi-role destroyer is equipped with the modern Aegis combat system and a very impressive vertical launch system (VLS) for missile delivery. The ROKN also commands 12 guided missile frigates.
As well, an 18,000 ton flat-top Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship (LHS) with a 199m flight deck entered service in 2005. It can accommodate up to ten helicopters and carry a Marine infantry battalion, as well as support equipment. It’s unlikely that South Korea will operate short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) fighter jets because of their prohibitive cost and limited operational utility. But in the future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) optimised for strike and reconnaissance could greatly enhance the ship’s expeditionary capability.
Looking ahead, the ROKN aims to establish a Submarine Command by 2015 and works are underway to construct new naval bases on Jeju Islands and Ulleung Islands, respectively closer to islets disputed with China and Japan. It also plans to acquire four additional Dokdo-class ships, six new destroyers (KDX-IIA) and up to 15 3,000 ton frigates over the next 10–15 years.
It’s unlikely that the ROKN will achieve all these capability plans by 2020 given budgetary limitations and competing defence priorities. Nevertheless, South Korea is slowly emerging as a significant naval power in Northeast Asia. This has at least three implications.
First, it strengthens South Korea’s sea deterrent against North Korea by introducing highly sophisticated ASW, submarine warfare, strike, air defence and missile defence assets. The ROKN now enjoys a significant technological advantage over the DPRK’s ageing fleet.
Second, South Korea might play a more active role in broader Asian maritime security. The ROKN has already operated for extended periods of time along the Somali coast, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean to conduct counter-piracy operations as part of the US-led multinational Combined Task Force-151. It also dispatched an amphibious ship to Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami. There could even be avenues for closer maritime security cooperation with Australia.
Thirdly, and more worrying, South Korea’s ‘blue water’ ambitions could raise tensions in an increasingly volatile Northeast Asian strategic environment. As Des Ball argues, the region is becoming subject to patterns of dynamic arms races, as opposed to mere military modernisation. And South Korea is part of the equation. The dominant strategic narrative in Seoul is that stronger naval capabilities are required as a direct response to Japan and China.
Seoul’s dispute with Tokyo over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets has intensified, and progress in bilateral defence ties seems unlikely. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ROKN investments in new submarines and destroyers are partly to boost Seoul’s claims over the islets. Most notably, the new Ulleung Island base will significantly reduce transit time for ROKN vessels to Dokdo/Takeshima, a move which could further exacerbate tensions with Japan. Tellingly, the last two submarines were named after Korean independence fighters against Japanese imperialism; calling the LHS ‘Dokdo’ needs no further explanation. Putting additional pressure on a Japan already besieged by China’s maritime assertiveness is the last thing the region needs.
But it’s not all about Japan. It’s no secret that China’s naval build-up is also a driver for ROKN modernisation. While South Korea–China relations are relatively harmonious, both sides still have a dispute over the Socotra Rock. Seoul also regularly objects to what it considers as illegal fishing boats in South Korea’s claimed EEZ. Consequently, the ROKN has argued that the real purpose of the new naval base on Jeju Island is to ‘respond to future territorial disputes with China’. However, should South Korea allow its US ally to use the naval base, it could enhance the allies’ (including Japan’s) deterrent against Chinese attempts to project naval power within the ‘first island chain’.
It remains to be seen whether South Korea’s growing naval power will have a net positive or negative effect on the shifting power balance in Northeast Asia. But it’s not going to be able to be ignored.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.