Is the South Korean Navy simply an expensive trifle?
Last week, Kyle Mizokami argued that the Republic of Korea Navy is “Impressive … and Pointless.” Mizokami makes the nutshell case against South Korea’s shift to the sea: "In the country’s rush to embrace its destiny as a seagoing nation, South Korea has prematurely shifted resources from defending against a hostile North Korea to defeating exaggerated sea-based threats from abroad. Seoul is in the midst of a strategic shift that has shorted defenses against the North and put its forces in harm’s way."
There’s no doubt something to this argument. The largest ships of the ROKN can, in context of the current state of disengagement between North and South Korea, look like little more than floating targets. South Korea treated the sinking of the Cheonan with admirable restraint. Imagine, however, if an over-excited North Korean sub skipper decided to try to torpedo Dokdo or Seojong the Great? It’s difficult to imagine that Seoul could avoid aggressive retaliation under those conditions, even given uncertainty about the North Korean response.
But navies serve multiple purposes. For centuries, powerful warships have acted as symbols of national prestige, helping to send messages of strength and political commitment. While the ability of South Korea to maintain the security of its maritime lines of communication probably does not, in the final analysis, depend on the size or sophistication of the ROKN, the ability of South Korean forces to participate in maritime maintenance operations (such as CTF-151, off the coast of Somalia) or disaster relief (a mission that ROKS Dokdo, with aviation and well-deck capability, would excel at).
Moreover, South Korea’s international profile is about more than just North Korea. South Korea wants to portray itself as a “normal” East Asian nation, and for better or worse “normal” East Asian nations currently build large, technologically impressive destroyers, flat-decked aircraft carrying warships, and powerful submarines. The ROKN also acts as an advertisement for South Korea’s defense and shipbuilding industries, although the importance of this can be overstated.
Similarly, international events such as fleet reviews and RIMPAC matter for international perception. South Korea may not need the largest and most powerful warships at such reviews, but making some contribution increases the ROKN’s international profile, and the perception that South Korea is a state that needs to be taken seriously as an international player.
And what of the future? With the lurking potential of a North Korean collapse, having amphibious, expeditionary naval capacity and the ability to manage the littoral around the entire Korean Peninsula could be of great practical and political value. This is especially true if the ROKN can manage the task without the assistance of Japan, China, or the United States.
Of course, there can be a bit of silliness about such acquisitions. In the early part of the twentieth century, the navies of the Southern Cone competed desperately to acquire modern dreadnoughts, only to find that they lacked the funds to pay the crews (one Brazilian battleship nearly bombarded Rio de Janeiro, and the only action seen by a Chilean dreadnought in thirty years of service was being bombed by the Chilean Air Force).
Also, naming the lead ship of a new class of flat deck aircraft carrying warships after a group of disputed, uninhabitable rocks was probably not, in the fullness of time, entirely necessary. Nevertheless, the profile of the ROKN fits with the image South Korea wants to project: a modern, technologically advanced, powerful, and responsible East Asian country.