Features | Security | East Asia

South Korea’s Misguided Pier Plan

Seoul’s plan to develop a naval base on Ulleung Island is aimed at boosting its claim over the disputed Dokdo islets. It will also inflame tensions with Japan.

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 (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.