In this 2016 US Navy handout photo, a Republic of Korea Navy submarine maneuvers during a combined maritime operation in the waters east of the Korean Peninsula. Photo: AFP / MC2 Will Gaskill / US Navy

South Korea’s navy is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, it said Thursday in a surprise announcement that would change the balance of power in north-east Asia and is likely to upset several of its neighbours.

Seoul is surrounded by three nuclear powers – China, Russia, and North Korea, which invaded its neighbour in 1950 – while it and neighbour Japan, both of them US allies but with difficult relations between them, rely on Washington’s nuclear umbrella.

Pyongyang last week tested what it said was a submarine-launched ballistic missile, although the US said it seemed to have been fired from a “sea-based platform.”

A proven submarine-based missile capability would take the North’s arsenal to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a second-strike capability in the event of an attack on its military bases.

In a report submitted to parliament the South Korean Navy said it had set up a task force headed by a commander-level official to examine procuring nuclear-powered submarines in the long term, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.

It appears to be the first time Seoul has publicly spoken of developing nuclear submarines, which were not mentioned in its most recent defense white paper. The document, released in January, said the South had 10 conventional diesel-powered submarines, compared with 70 for the North.

According to South Korean media, the navy said the issue was “a matter to be determined as a national policy in consultation with the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chief of Staff” – with no mention of the US.

Seoul is in a security alliance with the United States but President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded it pay more towards the cost of US troops while his current emollient approach to the North’s leader Kim Jong Un has raised some eyebrows in the South.

South Korean chief Admiral Sim Seung-seob told MPs that nuclear-powered submarines capable of longer underwater operations than conventional boats would be “most effective in finding and destroying North Korean submarines equipped with submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” according to Yonhap.

The military has “recognized their necessity and effectiveness,” he added.

The defense ministry declined to confirm the news to AFP but endorsed citing the report.

According to Seoul’s 2018 defencs white paper, the US has 14 nuclear submarines, just ahead of Russia’s 13, with China possessing four.

South Korea has 600,000 troops facing the North’s nearly 1.3 million strong-military, the document says, while analysts estimate Pyongyang has between 20 to 60 nuclear warheads.

European ‘provocation’

North Korea on Thursday slammed a statement by European UN Security Council members urging strict enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang for its latest, sea-launched missile test, calling the move a “grave provocation.”

In their statement at the UN Tuesday, the Europeans – France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Britain and Estonia – condemned Pyongyang’s tests and urged it to engage in “good faith in meaningful negotiations with the United States.”

The North on Thursday accused the Europeans of double standards.

“It is a grave provocation against us for the UN Security Council to not say a single word on the recent test of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile by the US but to pick on our righteous actions guaranteed by the right of self-defense,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Washington has spent decades and billions of dollars developing technologies to try to stop an incoming ballistic missile, and said last week that it had tested an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM.

“Our patience has its limits, and there is no rule that what we have been refraining from will continue indefinitely,” the North Korean spokesperson added in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Pyongyang declared a moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests at the end of 2017, saying it had completed the development of the deterrent, which it says it needs to defend against a possible US invasion.

The nuclear-armed North is under multiple sets of sanctions imposed by the UN, US, EU and others in an attempt to dissuade it from pursuing its weapons programmes.

Under leader Kim Jong Un it has carried out more than 100 missile launches, including ICBMs capable of reaching the entire United States, and in 2017 detonated its sixth nuclear blast.

In their statement, the European Security Council members said the North’s missile tests “undermine regional security and stability and they are in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

“International sanctions must remain in place and be fully and strictly enforced,” they added.


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