by KYLE MIZOKAMI
In July 2005 the South Korean navy took delivery of its largest warship to date. Two hundred meters long with a full-length flight deck and hangar, the amphibious assault ship Dokdo can carry up to 700 marines and 15 helicopters. It’s an impressive ship worthy of a world-class power — and the jewel of the Republic of Korea Navy.
It’s also completely unnecessary and a symbol of South Korea’s increasingly misplaced defense priorities.
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.
This misguided pivot also calls into question justification for the continued stationing of American troops in South Korea.
Destiny deferred, until now
South Korea has done an admirable job rebuilding from the Korean War, and its newfound prosperity and status is certainly worth defending. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, its economy dependent on exports, South Korea needs stable sea lanes. The country is a natural maritime power.
But for six decades the threat of a second invasion from North Korea tied up most of the South’s military resources, forcing Seoul to invest in ground forces and to a lesser extent the air force. This has no doubt frustrated those in the South who would like to realize South Korea’s maritime destiny.
But now it appears that South Korea’s naval advocates are winning the argument. Seoul has started building bigger and better ships, and its navy, by tonnage, is much bigger than that of North Korea. South Korea achieved a comfortable naval lead over the North decades ago but it still racing ahead.
The idea of South Korea as a maritime power is an eventuality. No one would deny it that. But it’s too soon.
Threats, real and imagined
Perhaps one of the most absurd territorial disputes between any two countries is the dispute over the South Korean islets called Dokdo. Dokdo is a tiny outcropping of rocks off the southern coast of South Korea. Claimed by both South Korea and Japan, it was occupied by South Korea in 1952. Uninhabitable due to the lack of fresh water, it is currently home to an elderly couple and a detachment of South Korean police.
South Koreans are emotionally invested in Dokdo. As a result, Seoul places an irrational amount of emphasis on protecting a minuscule amount of its territory from … Japan, of all places.
Demonstrations in South Korea supporting the island claim have in the past involved finger chopping, gut-stabbing and pheasant sacrifice. South Korean expatriates have sponsored billboards supporting the claim as far away as Dallas, Texas and Times Square in New York City.
South Korea has a complicated relationship with Japan that is alternately cordial, indifferent and downright frosty. It’s a relationship with the stain of Japan’s 40-year occupation of the Korean peninsula, for which many South Koreans believe Japan has not done enough to make amends.
The very country South Korea emulated to success is the very country it blames for leading it to the brink of national extinction. Tension generated by this relationship manifests as nationalism.
Seoul is worried that Japan will try to wrest Dokdo away by force. Yes, South Korea believes the avowedly pacifist country, with armed forces one-eleventh the size of the South Korean military, may suddenly risk international outrage and 70 years of peace to secure a handful of useless rocks.
South Korea even practices to defend Dokdo from attack. In June, the armed forces held a one-day exercise involving 10 ships and the country’s top-of-the-line F-15K fighter jets. The same exercise is usually held once or twice a year.
The Dokdo amphibious ship and its planned sister vessels is really not very useful against North Korea. The number of troops it could land is a pittance compared to the overall size of the North Korean military, and for operations in the string of islands near the demilitarized border helicopters are ideal.
But if you’re a South Korean defense planner and you’re worried that Japan may try to take the Dokdo islets, the ships are very useful.
South Korea has made other questionable defense choices. In 2007, South Korea built the first of six Sejong the Great-class destroyers. At 8,500 tons each, the destroyers are packed with more firepower than the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers they are patterned after.
They even have the Aegis combat system, the air-defense radar originally designed to defend American aircraft carriers against sophisticated air attacks.
One of the best things about the Aegis combat system is that the latest software upgrade allows for engagement of ballistic missiles. North Korea has a lot of ballistic missiles, and they are aimed at South Korea. The Aegis destroyers, expensive at $938 million dollars apiece, still sound like a justifiable investment.
There are two problems with that. First, North Korea does not have a sophisticated air force and for reasons to do with logistics and training probably could not launch many large-scale, sophisticated attacks. Second, South Korea bought the inferior version of the Aegis combat system software that is useless against ballistic missiles.
Why would South Korea bother spending nearly a billion dollars per ship for something that doesn’t actually add to the national defense? Six billion dollars could be used to buy some serious firepower. It could buy 700 K-2 Black Panther tanks and outfit two armored divisions that could shred invading North Korean tanks.
It could buy 1,800 K-9 mobile howitzers, the kind that were used to counterattack North Korean artillery after the attack on Yeonpyeong Island.
Incidentally, Japan was the first Asian country to have the Aegis combat system. It has, perhaps not coincidentally, six Aegis destroyers.
South Korea’s strategic choices are starting to make themselves apparent, and at each opportunity for validation it appears to have chosen wrong.
In 2010, a North Korean submarine sank the patrol vessel Cheonan with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors and wounding another 56. The Pohang-class vessel dated to the early 1980s, and by 2010 was obsolete. The class was so old that a year before the Cheonan attack the South Korean navy turned the lead ship into a museum.
Had Seoul started work on a replacement for the Pohang patrol ships instead of the totally unnecessary Dokdo, the vessel facing the North Korean submarine might have been a new ship with modern anti-submarine detection gear and weapons.
In 2011, North Korean artillery shelled the southern island of Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians. The latest, greatest additions to the Republic of Korea Navy could not have made the slightest difference.
South Korean artillery launched a counterattack but it was inaccurate, hampered by four of the six K-9 howitzers being inoperable at the time, and the Firefinder artillery radar malfunctioning. The lack of equipment readiness and poor accuracy of the counterattack suggests more resources should be allocated to training and maintaining ground forces.
Why is America still there?
The shift of South Korean defense spending into naval forces begs the question: if South Korea thinks it doesn’t have to spend money on ground forces, what are American ground forces doing in South Korea?
America has 28,000 troops in South Korea, including an infantry brigade and fighter squadrons. Their sole purpose is to halt a North Korean attack. They square off against a country with a large army and chemical and nuclear weapons.
If South Korea believes it’s time to start diverting resources to build a navy, then it logically follows that it also believes its ground forces are strong enough to handle whatever the North Korean military can throw at it. North Korea is after all the existential threat.
Military exercises to defend Dokdo reinforce the argument. It’s in the interests of American troops that their South Korean counterparts are as highly trained as possible. In wartime, improperly trained South Korean troops could cost American lives.
So is practicing to defend a series of worthless rocks from a pacifist country really the best use of resources? If it is, it might be time for American forces to leave.
All countries incorporate a certain amount of irrationality and nationalism in their defense planning; the United States is certainly no exception. But for a country facing an existential threat from a powerful neighbor and accepting the help of a foreign power in defending itself, South Korea’s margin for error is smaller than most countries. Seoul must discard emotional and unrealistic drivers of its defense policy.
South Korea’s destiny is as a naval power, and the impulse to shift the national direction to meet an onrushing future is entirely understandable.
But until the North Korea issue is settled that destiny must be deferred.