Following is the second in our series on Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power. In this installment we look at South Korea's growing naval prowess and its development of a blue-water navy.
Back in 2002, South Korea’s navy launched the Chungmugong Yi Sun-Shin to great fanfare. Not only was the 4,500-ton KDX-2 destroyer the largest and most technologically advanced naval combat vessel in Korean history—it was also a symbolic first step in the country’s pursuit of a blue-water navy.
Since then, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has acquired a range of vessels with a potentially global reach—a regional fleet surpassed in size only by Japan, China and India. Indeed, in terms of ship quality, the South Korean vessels are on par with all three.
The ROKN’s ongoing counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia have been only the most visible sign that the country is stepping up on the international maritime stage. But such missions come at an enormous cost, both in terms of time and resources. So why is South Korea pursuing a blue-water naval strategy? And what does it plan to do with it?
The answer to the former question seems, more than anything, to rest in a desire to boost South Korea’s international status. Despite being a war-torn, relatively poor country in the 1950s, six decades of rapid growth have seen it develop into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
This rapid economic growth has been heavily dependent on maritime access—about 99 percent of its international trade has depended on access to the world’s oceans and waterways. Indeed, with diplomatically isolated North Korea as the only country with which it shares a land border, South Korea has often felt more like an island.
But the country’s rapid economic growth relies in large part on developing countries, many of whom continue to be plagued by instability. Meanwhile, South Korea had no way of defending its overseas interests, meaning that for years the country was reaching its arms around the globe without a shield.
With such concerns in mind, Admiral An Byoung-Tae, then chief of naval operations, asked President Kim Young-Sam in 1995 to prepare for the construction of a blue-water navy. With Kim’s blessing, the ROKN began expanding and shaping its force structure to accommodate future threats.
Almost a decade later, Admiral An wrote an article that made public his vision for what a blue-water navy could mean. According to An, the ROKN should be capable of extended operations within East Asia and short-term operations in more distant theatres such as the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz. He said the navy should also be able to operate as a member of a multinational coalition, which would enable the South Korean government to play a greater role in international efforts and allow it to better shape the political landscape. Although the ROKN wasn’t envisaged as being as large as Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force or the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), as noted in World Village at the time, An still wanted the South Korean government to havea louder voice in international affairs.