South Korea’s Misguided Pier Plan
Image Credit: US Navy

South Korea’s Misguided Pier Plan


South Korea’s decision to build a naval pier at Sadong Port on Ulleung Island is creating further strains in its already troubled relationship with Japan.

Ulleung is the closest South Korean territory to disputed islets known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan that are claimed by both countries. South Korea’s Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Ministry is set to provide 217.5 billion won ($183 million) for the base, with the remainder of the cost to be borne by the National Defence Ministry. Construction is expected to begin early next year and, once completed in 2015, this ‘forward-deployment’ naval base will feature a 300 metre pier large enough to accommodate high-tech Aegis destroyers as well as South Korea’s 14,000 ton amphibious landing ship, the Dokdo. S

South Korea hopes that the new base will help strengthen its territorial claims on Dokdo as the base would enable its ships to reach the islands much more quickly than is currently possible. It takes just under three hours for a Japanese naval vessel to reach Dokdo from the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture. From Ulleung, South Korean ships would be able to reach Dokdo Island in about 90 minutes, compared with the about four hours it currently takes a South Korean naval vessel to reach Dokdo from the port of Jukbyeon in Uljin, North Gyengsang Province.

The move comes at a time of rising tensions between South Korea and Japan over Dokdo. In June, Korean Air undertook a test flight of its new aircraft over Dokdo, prompting Japan’s Foreign Ministry to describe the flight as a violation of Japan’s airspace. Tokyo ordered its public servants to boycott Korean Air for a month. In early August, a visit to Seoul by three conservative members of the Japanese Diet who were heading to Ulleung Island was met with angry protests from South Koreans who saw the high-profile trip as yet another attempt by Japan to boost its claim to the disputed islets. The lawmakers, from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, were sent back to Japan the same day. Meanwhile, South Korea issued a strong diplomatic protest against Japan’s 2011 defence white paper, which described the islands as Japanese territory.

It was against this backdrop of escalating diplomatic tensions that South Korea unveiled its plan to construct the new naval base, an announcement that itself followed a statement earlier this year that the South Korean Navy also planned to deploy new frigates at the base.

The sparsely inhabited islets, located in waters rich in marine life, have been a source of diplomatic tension for decades. Since 1954, South Korea has stationed a small marine police force on the islets, which Japan describes as an illegal occupation. South Korea, for its part, has consistently rejected Japanese claims over Dokdo. Seoul argues that it reclaimed sovereignty over all its territory, including Dokdo and many other islands around the Korean Peninsula, when it regained independence. South Korea therefore views Japan’s territorial claims as a sign that Japan hasn’t fully repented for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Peninsula.

South Korea’s decision over Ulleung Island, and its plan to develop another naval base on Jeju Island, appear to be part of a broader defence infrastructure build-up and expansion of the country’s defensive capabilities. Indeed, according to the Defence Ministry, the country’s defence budget next year will rise by 5.6 percent compared with this year. The 33.1 trillion won budget is to be spent on enhancing the combat readiness of the military, and the fortification of five border islands that are vulnerable to potential attack by North Korea. The ministry is also planning to purchase new combat equipment, improve military medical facilities, and boost investment in defence research and development efforts. About 25.8 billion won will be earmarked for a programme designed to nurture experts on countering the growing threats of cyber terrorism.

As a part of its defence acquisition programme, South Korea in August received its first airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing. Named ‘Peace Eye,’ the first surveillance aircraft landed at the Air Force base in Gimhae, about 450 kilometres southeast of Seoul. Under a $1.6 billion contract signed in November 2006, Boeing is to deliver four of these aircraft to South Korea by 2012. The surveillance aircraft is equipped with a multi-role, electronically scanned radar antenna and can detect and monitor up to 1,000 airborne or surface targets simultaneously within a 370 kilometre radius. The first aircraft has now been deployed with the South Korean Air Force after undergoing test flights.

There’s no doubt that for South Korea, the threat from its northern neighbour looms very large, and it’s clear the naval base in Jeju Island is being developed to counter the threat from Pyongyang. China’s increasingly assertive stance in the nearby South China Sea, where a number of countries have competing territorial claims, is another factor behind Seoul’s ramped-up defence preparedness.

Yet it’s hard not to feel that compared with the threats posed by North Korea and China, South Korea’s perception of Japan’s quest for control of Dokdo – and its response in developing the naval base on Ulleung Island – seem overdone. Sovereignty over the Dokdo islets has more emotive than strategic value for South Korea, and it’s clear that it is bitter historical memories that are shaping South Korea’s defence policy vis-à-vis Japan. Yet the fact remains that Japan’s current defence policy shows no sign of reverting to its military expansionist past. With this in mind, South Korea’s security strategists would be far better crafting an approach that’s grounded in present day realities, not those of the past.

Rajaram Panda is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.

October 28, 2011 at 22:07

I know that many Americans will quickly side with Japan – after all, it was not Korea who made anime or Toyota. But, still, pragmatically speaking – Koreans view the Japanese the same way most Jews view Germany even today. You have to understand that. And while Korea may have serious problems, as this IS a sensitive WW2-related issue, I think Japan should really back down.

Even North Korea has publicly supported the South’s claims, while China and Taiwan are united against Japan over Diaoyu/Senkaku. Even Russia has problems with Japan over Kuril. This is not Japan’s justice – it is its ancient arrogance resurfacing once more.

Vivian Kallankari
October 17, 2011 at 23:56

Why are Japanese people so jingoistic? They should really get rid of politicians from right party. Its struggle with China, Soviet Union and Korea clearly shows that Japan is the one who’s causing this whole controversy. What a chauvinist!

Steven j baber
October 17, 2011 at 00:29

It’s not Korea that is escalating the Dokdo (Takeshima) dispute. It is Japan.

The recent actions by Koreans are long-contemplated measures implemented immediately following Japanese provocations.

These escalations started following Shimane Prefecture’s decision to start Takeshima Day in 2005. The revision of Japanese schoolbooks, printing of government maps and publications stating that Dokdo (Takeshima) is Japanese have been inflaming the problem more recently. The Japanese government’s foolish attempt to raise a stink on Ulleungdo Island spurred the ROK into wisely maintaining a military presence near Dokdo.

The Ulleungdo base is a good idea. It will stop the Japanese (private and government) from doing something stupid such as planting a flag on Dokdo (Takeshima) or any act false acts of sovereignty over the islets. A few years back some Japanese right wing extremists tried this. It can also help deter Japanese fishermen from deliberately straying into Korean territory to provoke the ROK.

Koreans have learned from over 400 years of encroachment by Shimane Prefecture (Japan)

Shimane Prefecture have always perceived Korea’s weak defense of territorial borders as tacit approval for invasion.

October 12, 2011 at 00:50

@Izanami & Izanagi. Thank you very much indeed for taking the trouble to reply. Your opinion is insightful on some aspects of Japanese thoughts.

Most of all, I am most impressed with your calm, measured and cool tone and manner of asking and writing, which once again re-affirm my impression of the Japanese as a people with very refined manners and culture.

I hope to share more with both of you when the next opportunity arise.

October 11, 2011 at 18:51


Just like the author of this article – you answered your own question.

“… Japan never had any opportunity to think, act or decide independently (except on economic policies) on foreign affairs and defence without US oversight.”

Privately, most Japanese people understand this asymmetrical dynamic. The younger generation is less accepting of this thinking than the older generation who were mostly forced to live and fight through the horrors of war.

The Falkland Islands War is a perfect example of true sovereignty.

Japan can never do the same – the west won’t allow this – especially since S.K. is such a strategic partner to the China/N.Korea containment policy.

To clarify my earlier point:

South Korea is physically attacked by a North Korean torpedo sinking an entire military naval ship – the Cheonan – KILLING some of its crew members in March of LAST YEAR ! South Korea’s response: nothing. No flag or effigy burnings, no protest marches in droves, no combative rhetoric, and above all no response in kind. Why ?

What happens 8 months later in November 2010 – less than a year ago ? A South Korean military base is bombarded by a North Korean shell attack hitting military and CIVILIAN targets – causing casualties, again. What does S.K. do – Nothing – Nada – Zilch. Why?

The reason is because North Korea CAN and will actually respond with force. A true sovereignty has this option to unilaterally initiate foreign policy with this ability – this has been true since the beginning of time with the first nomadic tribes which eventually evolved into the rise of the nation state. Humans are humans. Only push around the guy you know will never push you back.

These very real and very current security issues does not prompt Seoul to build a naval base against North Korea, but rather, against one of its largest supporters both financially and technologically – Japan. The economies of South Korea and Japan are so intertwined that it would be a major detriment for both nations to get into it with each other militarily. Sony Bravia LCD displays are being manufactured in South Korea by Samsung utilizing advanced Japanese technologies as manufacturing/technology PARTNERS. There are many many more countless examples of these types of partnered collaborations. South Korea has emerged as an economic powerhouse in the past two decades in large part due to Japanese investment and know how which has become much more like modern day Japan.

Keep in mind that the current democratic electoral system did not actually happen in South Korea until the late 1980′s – South Korea was ruled with an iron fist by a military junta until then. Many South Koreans will privately agree that it was a very closed and very very conservative society back then compared to now.

Oops, is this a theme or something… did I just answer my own ‘why’ question ?
Is there an election coming up in South Korea?

October 10, 2011 at 22:20

@Nirvana & Mareo. A nationalist blindly supports his government, no matter what it does. A patriot is proud of his country but, when necessary, will have the courage to challenge his government. Nationalism leads to arrogance and war. Patriotism leads to responsibility and can prevent war.

So, what was it when Japan went to war in WW2 ? Nationalism or Patriotism or a stew of both ?

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