This week South Korea launched its fourth Type 214 submarine at a ceremony off the Coast of Geoje Island that was attended by President Park Geun-hye.
The ceremony, like the new submarine itself, was tinged with references to Imperial Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula, and Seoul’s emergence as a power that will never again be forced to submit to such humiliation.
For instance, the submarine has been named Kim Jwa-jin, after a famous Korean independence fighter. Notably, the last submarine South Korea launched, the Ahn Jung-geun, was also named after a famous independence fighter.
In speaking at the ceremony, President Park declared “The Kim Jwa-jin submarine will not only contribute greatly to safeguarding our maritime sovereignty, but also become a symbol to promote our country’s defense science and technology.”
“I will not tolerate any kind of attempts at damaging our national interests and maritime sovereignty,” the ROK president vowed.
Indeed, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) already operates 12 submarines and Seoul has ambitious plans for its underwater future.
Nine of the ROKN’s current submarines are Chang Bogo class diesel-electric attack vessels that are the export versions of the German Type 209 class submarines. Seoul first ordered three of the Type 209 class submarines from the German company, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW), in 1987. They were launched between 1992 and 1993 and commissioned between 1993 and 1995. The first one was built in Germany while the other two were manufactured in South Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME). In 1989 and 1994 South Korea ordered a total of six more Type 209 submarines, all of which were built by Daewoo with HDW assistance.
According to Naval Technology, the Chang Bogo class submarine displaces over 1,200 tons, has a single hull and “a length of 56 m, a beam of 6.2 m and a draft of 5.5 m.” In terms of weaponry, the Chang Bogo class vessel boasts eight 533 mm tubes and 14 Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) Mod 2 torpedoes, each of which has a range of 28 km. Some of them can also fire Harpoon cruise missiles and all can hold mines instead of torpedoes. Their diesel-electric propulsion system enables them to travel at a maximum speed of 22 knots when submerged, with a range of 595km.
The ROK Navy’s (ROKN) underwater capabilities strengthened significantly between 2007 and 2009, when it began commissioning the three initial Son Won-Il class Type 214 submarines it ordered from HDW in 2000.
The three 1,800 ton Won-il Class vessels, which were built by the South Korean company Hyundai Heavy Industries, have a number of advantages over the ROKN’s existing Type 209 submarines.
For one thing, the Type 214 submarines are equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), which allows them to stay submerged for two weeks at a time. They also have a diving depth of 400 meters, although their underwater speed is reportedly only about 20 knots. Their ISUS 90 submarine combat systems allow the Type 214 vessels to engage 300 targets simultaneously.
The Kim Jwa-jin submarine launched earlier this week is the first of six Type 214 submarines the ROK ordered back in 2009. The second batch of Type 214 submarines are being built by Daewoo instead of Hyundai Heavy Industries. This batch will come with a number of improvements over the first batch, including a better AIP system.
According to Xinhua News, the second batch of Type 214 submarines “operate various missions such as anti-ship, anti-air and anti- submarine warfare as well as ship-to-land precision strikes with cruise missiles.” Xinhua also claims they can make a round-trip from South Korea to Hawaii without refueling.
The contracts for the Type 209 and Type 214 submarines included technology transfers from HDW. In many ways, these are simply the precursors to what will be the ROKN’s more formidable domestically developed underwater vessels.
Already Seoul has announced it will build three domestically-designed 3,000-ton submarines beginning in 2018. They will be diesel-powered and are rumored to include vertical launch missile capabilities, which will dramatically improve ROKN’s long-range, underwater precision strike capabilities.
A Yonhap report earlier this month quoted an unnamed military source as saying the ROKN expects to actually commission at least nine of these 3,000-ton submarines by 2030.
The same source told Yonhap, “The 1,800-ton submarines have an underwater time about 10 times longer than the 1,200-ton submarines,” referring to the Type 214 and Type 209 submarines respectively. The source added: “Compared to the 1,800-ton subs, the 3,000-ton subs probably won't have an underwater time that is 10 times longer, but it will still be much longer.”
As Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has noted, the details emerging about the 3,000-ton vessels suggest that they are being designed with China’s burgeoning Navy in mind. Notably, South Korea is also building a naval base on Jeju Island, which many believe is designed to better position the ROKN to counter China.
Previously, the ROK submarine fleet was interpreted as being directed primarily at North Korea, which has some 70 or 80 low quality submarines that have periodically posed challenges to South Korea’s Navy. Most recently, in March 2010 a torpedo from a North Korean submarine sank the ROKN corvette, Cheonan.
“As a result” of the Cheonan incident, NTI notes, “ROKN officials have recently placed greater emphasis on the significant role of submarines in sea denial to hostile forces and anti-submarine warfare, rather than the longer-term goal of a blue-water navy.”
ROKN planners may also have Japan in mind in building up their underwater capabilities. Japan long operated eighteen submarines (including two trainers) but decided in 2010 to increase this figure to over twenty, according to the South Korean media. South Korea and Japan have a territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (also called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan).