South Korea: Asia's Other Rising Naval Power
Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (flickr)

South Korea: Asia's Other Rising Naval Power


With the world’s attention focused on a potential confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea, a third player has built what may be the most powerful ship-for-ship fleet in Northeast Asia.  Over the past fifteen years, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has expanded dramatically, acquiring a substantial fleet of modern, powerful warships. While the ROKN continues to prepare for the contingency of conflict with North Korea, it has become a force capable of significant foreign deployment.  If Seoul maintains its commitment to the Navy, the ROKN could become one of the world’s premier middle power navies. 

Since 1953, North Korea has posed the central strategic problem for the ROKN.  The sinking of the Cheonan and the DPRK’s bombardment of offshore islands in 2010 served as harsh reminders of the maritime aspects of the North Korea dilemma.  New designs (especially frigates) suggest a renewed emphasis on anti-submarine warfare. However, many of the capabilities of South Korea’s new warships seem geared towards global contingencies, rather than being designed to meet specific North Korean threats.

The Aegis equipped Sejong the Great (KD-III) class destroyers, for example, compare favorably with American, Japanese, and Chinese designs, carrying more missiles in VLS cells than their foreign counterparts.  Although quite capable of engaging North Korea in a strike, air defense, or missile defense capacity, the three ships of the class represent a much more substantial commitment to surface warfare than the threat of the DPRK demands. 

Similary, the Dokdo class amphibious warships suggest a maritime focus extending well beyond the Korean Peninsula.  Like many amphibious warships, the 18,000 ton Dokdo strongly resembles a small aircraft carrier. As British and French operations in Libya last year demonstrated, amphibious warships can become strike vessels through the addition of attack helicopters.  Although South Korea does not currently participate in the F-35B project, the prospect of flying the STOVL fifth generation fighter from Dokdo (or potentially from Dokdo’s successors) undoubtedly appeals to some South Korean defense planners.  However, even if the tremendous expense of acquiring and operating such fighters proves daunting, the light carriers could someday employ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) optimized for strike and reconnaissance roles.  In any case, the Dokdos give South Korea a plausible expeditionary capability.

South Korea’s robust shipbuilding industry (the world’s largest) helps support and underwrite the ROKN’s expansion and modernization. Four Dokdos and six KD-IIIs are planned, although actual construction may not match these numbers.  If it does, however, this would represent one of the most potent naval warfare squadrons in the world, potentially capable of conducting many different missions in the region.  The KD-IIIs and Dokdos are supported by a force of nine modern large frigates (designated destroyers), all displacing from 3500-6000 tons and specialized for surface and sub-surface warfare.  Another fifteen 3000 ton frigates are in the ROKN’s plans.

Much like the PLAN, the ROKN has taken advantage of every opportunity to develop experience with distant, long-term deployments.  South Korea is a regular participant at RIMPAC, as well as other significant multilateral exercises.  Also like the PLAN and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), the ROKN has maintained a continuous presence in support of CTF 151’s anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. 

All of this suggests that the ROKN is built for exigencies well beyond war on the Peninsula.  Naval vessels of the sort operated by South Korea (small carriers and the modern-day equivalent of battleships) carry a high prestige value.  This signals to both domestic and international audiences that Seoul is to be taken seriously on the international stage.  However, the fleet also represents a hedge against the possibility that South Korean relations with its larger neighbors may deteriorate.  The capabilities the ROKN is currently pursuing could operate abroad in expeditionary and humanitarian relief operations, or could help protect South Korea’s maritime lifelines.  In any case, the tendency to focus exclusively on the navies of China and Japan misses out on one of the most important new players in the Northeast Asian maritime scene. 

December 7, 2012 at 12:05

Korean naval build-up incorporates modern stealth capabilities not present in JMDSF and PLAN vessels, meaning that stealthy Korean warships will be able to creep-up on the enemy before being detected and sink the enemy at will.  

Timothy H Wiley
October 5, 2012 at 00:13

Actually, Korea has a naval tradition going back before the English landed on Plymouth rock. During the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 & 1593, it was the Korean Navy of that time that harassed and defeated the Japanese supply ships which forced the Japanese to withdraw from Korea.

Eric Palmer
October 4, 2012 at 05:55

—"Although South Korea does not currently participate in the F-35B project, the prospect of flying the STOVL fifth generation fighter from Dokdo (or potentially from Dokdo’s successors) undoubtedly appeals to some South Korean defense planners.  "—  About the only thing the F-35 will qualify as is a fifth-generation failure. By definition of its' Joint Operational Requirement Docuemnt (JORD), created in the 1990s and signed off on at the beginning of the last decade, the F-35 will be obsolete vs. emerging PacRim threats.

October 3, 2012 at 21:12

Technically it can be considered as 'voluntary' since it is a choice for young men to make.  Either be conscripted into the army or 'volunteer' to do their mandatory service with either the navy or air force both of which the service periods are longer than the army's 21 months. 

John in LA
October 3, 2012 at 18:26

Prestice is no small matter. Let's not forget why US landed men on the moon. It was pretty much about making sure US had better prestige than USSR.

John in LA
October 3, 2012 at 18:25

ROK navy and airforce are volunteer forces but require longer commitment than regular army. there's also the riot police (aka combat police) which is also longer than the regular army service. ROK marine is all volunteer.
In 80's when lots of demonstrations were taking place, many chose to go with regular army, which looked easier than getting heads busted open facing down the demonstrators.
Than there's the public service way which is kinda like for public service, but this is reserved for ones with physical disabilities that don't meet the requirement for service in armed forces.

YN3 murphy
October 3, 2012 at 11:04

Is the ROK Navy a volunteer force? or is it a conscription force like the ROK Army?

October 3, 2012 at 10:42

For people that live in northeast Asia and regularly follow defense news, this article is like reading a new-comer writer sudenly "discovering" what is not only old news, but also something that already as changed. This article lacks knowledge of local politics. Some time ago when koreans tried the "Sunshine policy" (AKA feed North Korea keep them peaceful), the military was rather forced to find a "new role", you know how this work, "let expand our operations abroad, do some humanitarian work and get some respect from other countries". Then one of that times when the Dokodo /Takeshima incident flared up, of course many koreans demanded send warships and "give the japs what they deserve". But a korean civilian runned a wargame simulation of a ROK-Japan war and (of course) ROK lose in what only can be described as "a shameful display". You can imagine their anger, so more money for  war potential at sea become popular. But after the Cheonan incident the navy got flaked by the politicians for expend so much on their blue water navy (for rival Japan, NOT China). After build a very expensive Aegis destroyers (it common for koreans on the internet bragging by wrinting something like "look Japan ours are better, we have more missiles"). The problem is, what is good as deterrence against Japan is not good as deterrence against the DPRK. You dont' beleive me? Here… read this from experts:
"After the ROKS King Sejong’s official delivery to the ROK Navy at the end of 2008, 2 other ships of the class were expected to enter service. ROKS Yulgok Yi I was supposed to enter service in 2010, but took until 2011. The 3rd ship (was Kwon Yul, but launched as Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong), was delivered at the end of August 2012 estimates  that each vessel will cost about 1.2 trillion won (roughly $923 million equivalent).
The question is what happens after that.
The program has options for another 3 ships, but the March 2010 sinking of the corvette ROKN Cheonan by a North Korean submarine has shifted the ROKN’s focus away from the globe’s blue waters, and back toward its own littoral regions. Rather than continuing to build more KDX-III destroyers, there has been some talk in South Korea of modernizing the cheaper 5,000t KDX-II light destroyer design, giving the ships smaller radar and emissions profiles, and adding AEGIS radars and combat systems to give them better anti-aircraft coverage.
The North Korean shelling of south koreans civilians just increased the refocuse on the Korean Penisula. For example, notice that the latest big defense new from ROK, is that finally they convinced the US to allow them to violate the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that limitng delivery systems for warheads to a payload of less of 500 kg. and a range of less of 300 km, but "only" to a maximun range that can cover North Korea, not beyond that because it can provoke diplomatic storms from Japan and China,

October 3, 2012 at 01:19

well aside from NK, SK also has disputes with japan, thus it makes sense for it to have a navy that can protect its interest from and japanese navy, which is one of the largest and most powerful in asia

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