South Korea's Naval Buildup

A southern island with long-standing issues with the mainland; local residents up in arms over the construction of a new, large military base; environmentalists concerned that these plans will disrupt sensitive under sea coral formations.

Another chapter in the unending Okinawa Marine base saga?

No. In this instance the island is Jeju-do off the southern coast of South Korea. The issue is Seoul’s desire to build a major naval base in Gangjeong village on the southern part of the island to serve as a home port for South Korea’s growing fleet of large and sophisticated warships.

Much is made about China’s rapidly expanding navy and ambition to create a fleet capable of projecting power globally. Not so well known is South Korea’s decade-long project to build its own blue water navy. There is nothing particularly secret about South Korea’s naval build up, it just doesn’t get the kind of attention that China’s gets.

This ocean-going force is built around an arsenal of sophisticated guided missile destroyers, including most recently, two 7,600-ton Aegis-equipped monster destroyers with one more under construction , half a dozen 4,500-ton destroyers, submarines and amphibious assault ships.

The flagship of this new strategic fleet is an 18,000 ton, flat-topped amphibious assault ship with the pregnant name of Dokdo, after the tiny island in the Sea of Japan that is claimed by both Korea and Japan and which is a frequent source of tensions between the two countries.

The Dokdo is currently larger than anything in the Japanese navy or even the rapidly expanding Chinese navy – or at least until Beijing finally launches its much-talked about aircraft carrier. Indeed, it is the largest warship belonging to any Asian navy east of India.

Although its main armament would be helicopters and marines, it would also be capable of supporting unmanned aircraft in some future conflict. The South Koreans are planning to build several more of this type of vessel, although probably not as large.

The official purpose of this naval buildup by South Korea is, much as in China, to project power beyond its coastline plus being able to participate in international peacekeeping operations and disaster recovery and relief efforts. Several South Korean destroyers participate in the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia’s coast, along with warships from China and Japan.

A more logical explanation would be that, as in China, the expansion and modernization of the fleet is a natural and inevitable growing process of a nation’s armed forces proportional to the rapidly growing size of its economy. Rationales for the expansion are found later.

A naval base on the south side of Jeju is an obvious step in South Korea’s blue water ambitions, as it allows direct access to the open sea. But it is also located about as far away from the sensitive border with North Korea, supposedly South Korea’s true enemy, as one can be and still be in the country.

When completed in 2014, the base will accommodate about 20 of the country’s most modern surface warships and submarines. There is also proposed space to dock two large cruise ships, an apparent sop to locals as it could be argued the new port boosts tourism.

Growing numbers of Chinese are visiting Jeju and would likely formed the bulk of the passengers on the tourist vessels. Seoul probably is not unhappy that thousands of ordinary Chinese will get a good look at Korea’s growing naval might while enjoying beaches and sampling kimchi.

South Korea’s blue water naval strategy developed in the late 1990s, during a period of relatively relaxed relations with North Korea. This was the time of the Sunshine policy of President Kim Dae-jung and his successor.

But unlike China, which has few if any threats along its coastline, North Korea does pose a real menace. That was driven home last year when a North Korean submarine put a torpedo into the South Korean Corvette Choenan, sending her to the bottom along with more than 40 of her crew.

While Seoul was dreaming of grandiose deep sea ambitions, it had taken its eye off the ball and become somewhat lackadaisical about protecting its sensitive northern coastline. And if the events of last year proved anything, it is that one cannot be lackadaisical about the dangerous provocations from the North.

This sobering experience has not immediately altered Seoul’s naval procurement plans, which of course, were longstanding. But one hears less and less about blue water power projection. Last May the government withdrew “Ocean Navy Strategy” as an official rationale for the Jeju naval base (though work proceeds).

Unlike Okinawa, which is mainly a three-cornered dispute between Tokyo, Washington and the people of Okinawa, the Jeju base dispute has attracted more attention from international peace groups, Catholic organizations and other NGOs. Unlike Okinawa, which bristles with military bases there are no major installations on Jeju. Indeed, it likes to bill itself as an “island of peace.”

But like Okinawa, which still harbors resentments toward the mainland, Jeju has its own issues. For Okinawans it was the way they were used as cannon fodder during the last battle of World War II. For Jeju people it is the “4.3 Incident”.

The date refers to a rebellion, probably stoked by the communist Workers’ Party (now the rulers of North Korea but banned in the South, that broke out in April 3, 1948. The army put the rebellion down but it is estimated that 14,000 to 60,000 were killed. Since then South Korea’s military has not been particularly welcome on Jeju.