South Korean navy vessels taking part in a naval drill off the east coast of South Korea in September last year. Photo: AFP/South Korean Defense Ministry
South Korean navy vessels taking part in a drill off the east coast of South Korea in 2018. Photo: AFP / South Korean Defense Ministry

Last month, amidst great fanfare, China officially launched its second aircraft carrier, the 43,000-ton Shandong – the first of these big beasts to be built in a Chinese shipyard.

At the same time, South Korea launched its second carrier, the ROKN Marado, which drew considerably less attention.

The 18,000 ton Marado was officially listed as an amphibious carrier similar to the way its Japanese counterpart, Izumo, also displacing 18,000 tons, is officially described as a “helicopter destroyer.” It was the second warship in the Dokdo class and a sure sign that Seoul is determined to build an ocean-going fleet.

The Marado can handle a variety of useful tasks from anti-submarine warfare to disaster relief to transporting marines. Yet these capabilities do not seem to speak to the core security problem facing South Korea – the existence of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

An admiral’s dream made real

While much has been made of China’s blue water ambitions and Japan’s defense expansion, we hear less about South Korea. Having an ocean-going capability was the dream of Admiral An Byong, who in 1995 persuaded then-President Kim Yong-sam to okay his sweeping 15-year Defense Reform Plan 2020. It is now virtually complete.

South Korea possesses many warships capable of overseas deployments. Indeed, for years the South Korean Navy has participated in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia, along with ships from the Chinese and Japanese navies.

Its ocean-going force is built around an arsenal of sophisticated guided missile destroyers, including, most recently, two 7,600-ton Aegis-equipped destroyers plus a half a dozen 4,500-ton destroyers plus submarines and amphibious assault ships. They compare favorably with American, Japanese and Chinese designs.

The flagship of South Korea’s new navy is the flat-topped, 18,000-ton amphibious assault ship Dokdo. Incidentally, the name is a provocative work itself: it is Korean for a duo of South Korean-occupied and administered islets in the Sea of Japan. However, Dokdo is also claimed by Japan – which calls it Takeshima.

Until the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning was commissioned, the Dokdo was the largest warship belonging to any Asian navy east of India.

South Korea could buy the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) version of the new F-35 and base them on the Marado, but it would require considerable modifications to the flight deck. Several F-35s are based on the USS Wasp, an assault carrier of the US 7th Fleet. Seoul is now buying the air force version.

During US President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea in 2017, his South Korean counterpart pressed him on the issue of building nuclear-powered submarines, aimed presumably at the North’s growing submarine force and possible submarine-launched missiles. Diesel-powered submarines, which can stay submerged for days, might better fit South Korea’s defense needs.

A valid question is why South Korea needs a blue water navy – aside from prestige. After all, South’s main threat comes from North Korea, whose navy consists primarily of small vessels and submarines.

Defending against China – or Japan?

Certainly Seoul, like a lot of other capitals in East Asia, worries about China. Its concerns range from the general to a very specific worry that China has designs on Socotra, a submerged – even at low tide – reef off the southwest coast. It is known as Ieodo in Korean and Suyan in Chinese.

This seems like an awfully small thing to potentially fight over – but Seoul takes anything to do with territorial issues very seriously.

Seoul complained mightily in 2013 when China extended its then new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, pointedly covering Socotra as well as the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Seoul has built a large superstructure over the reef and naval vessels regularly patrol around it.

Also, could South Korea’s expanded navy’s mission be a deterrence to a remilitarized Japan? There is huge public distrust of Japan among South Koreans due to prickly historical issues from Tokyo’s 20th century colonization of Korea.

Naval confrontation is a tradition going back centuries in Japanese-Korean conflicts. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Japanese pirates ravaged the coast of Korea.

A full-scale 16th century Japanese invasion was repelled by Korea’s greatest national hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, and his revolutionary iron-clad boats. And, of course, a Japanese army occupied Korea while its navy sunk most of the Chinese fleet in the First Sino-Japanese war before annexing the country outright.

South Korea is building a “forward” naval base on Ulleung island in the Sea of Japan. Ulleung formally administers the Dokdo islets in the middle of the sea – which, incidentally, South Korea is demanding the global community change the name of, to include the Korean name for the body of water – “East Sea” – along with the commonly used “Sea of Japan.”

Tokyo does not challenge Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islets the same in-your-face way that Beijing challenges Japan in the Senkakus/Diaoyus, for example. But certain Korean actions, such as Korean overflights or visits by VIPs, do bring forth protests from Tokyo.

South Korea has also completed a new naval base on Jeju Island, the southern-most territory in South Korea, which makes it strategically placed vis a vis China and Socotra.

However, somewhat like Okinawa in Japan, the navy’s new base presence on Jeju is controversial. The base can accommodate 20 warships with docks big enough to handle a US aircraft carrier.

Unlike on Okinawa, there had been no other military presence. Jeju was the site of a leftist-instigated rebellion in April, 1948, that met with a Carthaginian response: Some 30,000 people were killed in the ensuing counter-insurgency operations. Not surprisingly, the Korean military has not been very welcome on the island since.

The Jeju base is obviously a key element in Seoul’s blue water plans, since it allows direct access to the open sea. And South Korea, the world’s seventh largest trading nation, can legitimately claim to have a stake in keeping sea lanes around the world secure and open.

The Jeju base is well placed to project power over Socotra, toward China and, indeed, the seven seas. But it is also located about as far from the border of the biggest and most immediate threat facing the nation – North Korea – as possible.