Amid intensifying competition among regional powers for maritime primacy, South Korea is not equipped to fend off growing threats to its territorial waters and assert its strategic interests, experts said.
With its military prioritizing deterring North Korea and lack of public understanding of maritime security, the country is lagging behind China and Japan despite them repeatedly challenging Korean sovereignty, experts pointed out.
“While China and Japan have long sought to expand their maritime interests, it is frustrating to see it (Korea) being mired in domestic affairs amid political deadlock,” said Kang Hyo-baik, vice dean of the Graduate School of International Legal Affairs at Kyung Hee University.
“South Korea seriously lacks public awareness of maritime sovereignty, does not have sufficient education, institutions, and more importantly laws to back our territorial claims, should it be engaged in any international maritime disputes.”
With U.S. military power on the decline due to budget cuts, South Korea will have to increase its self-defense capabilities and decrease its reliance on the long-time ally, experts said.
In particular, the U.S. may not see critical interest in waters near Ieodo in the East China Sea and Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo, which Beijing and Tokyo claim as their territory respectively, meaning Korea needs to enhance its naval force, they noted.
The U.S. is expected to have around 250 warships ― compared with the 346-ship fleet recommended by congressional experts in 2010 ― due to budget cuts and the decommissioning of aging warships in the coming decade.
“We cannot, forever, depend on the U.S. The military alliance can be maintained when the other has an adequate amount of military strength,” said Lim Han-kyu, adjunct professor at Hyupsung University who served as vice chief of the Naval Education and Training Command from 2006-2007.
“We need to possess a balanced amount of naval power that could be menacing enough to ward off threats from China and Japan.”
Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, shared the view that Seoul must focus more on its naval strength.
“While North Korea and OPCON (wartime operational control) reversion (from Washington to Seoul) will continue to favor ground and air forces, Korea’s regional and global influence will be advanced most by maritime forces,” he said.
“Continued naval modernization and new facilities at Jeju will make South Korea a stronger nation and ally (for the U.S.).”
China has aggressively strengthened its naval power under a long-term, consistent strategy that covers not only the South and East China seas, but also virtually the entire world by 2050.
Based on this ambitious plan, China has encountered a slew of maritime disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea where crucial sea lines of communication converge and vast reserves of resources are buried.
Beijing is now preparing to put into service its first aircraft carrier “Varyag” in August in a move to bolster its maritime ambitions. The carrier was bought from the Ukraine in 1998.
China’s principal motivation to expand maritime interests is to secure resources to feed its 1.3 billion people and power its economy. Most of China’s imports come through maritime routes as is true for other nations.
To keep China in check, Japan has beefed up its maritime self-defense force with high-tech naval warships including six 7,200-ton class Aegis-equipped destroyers under a proactive defense strategy with an operational coverage of 1,000 nautical miles.
Japan has also capitalized on its diplomatic prowess to expand its territorial waters. It has claimed that Okinotori reefs in the Pacific some 1,740 kilometers from its mainland are its territory, and that the vast continental shelf near it, thus, is within its jurisdiction.
The claim was rejected last week by the U.N. Commission of the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
For broader-range, overseas operations, the South has only three Aegis-equipped 7,600-ton destroyers, one of which has yet to be deployed, and six 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyers.
Military experts say that such insufficient naval assets make the country vulnerable to growing maritime threats.
“When Japan seeks to have eight Aegis destroyers, we need to have at least four. Currently, our capacity to have a blue-water navy is insufficient,” said Lim of Hyupsung Univesrity.
“With China seeking to have aircraft carriers, we also need to possess at least a small-scale carrier. We also need effective deterrence assets such as nuclear-powered submarines capable of keeping China and Japan in check.”
It was only early this year that Seoul launched serious research into its maritime security. After the National Assembly set a budget last year for research on bolstering Korea’s maritime power, the National Defense University began the six-month research project in April.
The Seoul government and military have started to recognize the need to bolster naval strength as it has pushed for the construction of a strategic naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju. But the construction has suffered delays amid strong resistance from environmentalists and left-wing politicians.
Some argue that the construction will militarize the island that symbolizes peninsular peace, damage tourism and its ecosystem and give space for U.S. military operations, while others argue that it will enhance maritime security in southern waters.
But the dispute over the envisioned base has increasingly taken on political overtones in the election year.
“Public opposition to the expansion of a naval base in Jeju is frankly simply anti-American sentiment. But I would argue that ultimately, they are anti-Korean, because these short-sighted protests will damage Korea’s strength in the future,” said Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University.
“The Korean public should try to overcome emotional and nationalistic responses, and engage in serious public debate about security issues.”
To shore up its maritime claim, experts stressed that Seoul should quickly enact relevant laws clarifying its sovereignty over its territory and maritime resources, including its continental shelves.
Both China and Japan passed laws concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone and their continental shelves in the late 1990s. Seoul’s law on the EEZ took effect in 1996, but it has yet to have any law on the continental shelf.
“When you engage in any negotiations over maritime sovereignty, you should have legal grounds, both domestic and international. The domestic law is crucial in that you can rely on it to make a firm, clear case in the negotiations,” said Kang of Kyung Hee University.
“We have no legal stance whatsoever now about our continental shelf. We just rely on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and do not have our own domestic legal grounds, while politicians are just competing over their domestic political interests. They are very lackadaisical.”
South Korea’s lack of interest in its territorial waters appears to stem from Confucianism rooted in its society, decades of dictatorship by Army general-turned leaders and its dependence on the U.S. military.
“People have valued human life in this society influenced by Confucianism, regarding the sea as threatening life. So, people shun the sea and sailors. During the past military governments, the Army generals led the country with its policy focus on the Army,” said Lim.
“While focusing on ground troops, the naval force has not gained any priority attention as Seoul can rely on the U.S. air force and navy deployed in the region including Japan and the peninsula.”
Noting persistent power struggles among the Army, Navy and Air Force, Lim said that the issue of strengthening naval strength should be dealt with from a broader perspective of a national strategy as it could descend into another intra-military dispute.
“Like other advanced nations, we should pursue maritime security as part of a national strategy so that it cannot get bogged down amid partisan disputes,” he said.
The need to bolster naval capabilities still remains understated, but Seoul also faces the need to strengthen its ground forces as the U.S. Army commitment to South Korea in the event of a war is expected to diminish.
The U.S. plans to reduce its Army troop levels to 490,000 from the current 570,000 as it faces more than $450 billon in defense budget cuts over the next decade.
It also has apparently abandoned its long-held strategy to have the ability to fight and win two wars at once, triggering concerns that the U.S. may not be able to mobilize massive ground troops in case of a war here should it engage in another, possibly in the Middle East.
Under the South Korea-U.S. Operation Plan 5027 centering on a scenario of an all-out war, the U.S. is to dispatch its 690,000 troops to the peninsula and mobilize 160 military vessels and 2,500 aircraft within 90 days of the outbreak of a war. But experts say that it is no longer realistic.