A recent report submitted during last month’s National Assembly Audit revealed that the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) remains largely unprepared to enforce the expanded Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ). Last December, Seoul redefined the KADIZ to include two of its sovereign territorial islands, Marado and Hongdo, as well as Ieodo (or Scotra Rock), a submerged rock that has become the basis for a maritime dispute between the Seoul and Beijing. As of August 2014, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense began negotiating with its neighboring nations in an effort to prevent unintentional clashes and to increase cooperation in the areas where the air defense identification zones of China, Japan and South Korea overlap. While Seoul has yet to announce any notable results from these negotiations, the latest Parliamentary Inspection has uncovered troubling figures related to the ROKAF’s enforcement of expanded KADIZ.
The data collected from January to early October of this year indicates that while the intrusions into this expanded KADIZ area has been numerous, South Korea attempts to intercept these aircraft have been limited to a handful of times. During this period, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) intruded into the expanded ADIZ 85 times, for which the ROKAF scrambled its jets only twice. The number of Chinese intrusions has been increasing for reasons that still remain unclear to the ROKAF, although it is common knowledge that the PLAAF training air space overlaps with the KADIZ. The Russians have also intruded into the expanded KADIZ 24 times, but were intercepted by ROKAF aircraft only three times. Additionally, Japan appears to have intruded into the expanded area the most with 388 intrusions, none of which were intercepted.
While the figures relating to the Japanese intrusions should not be a cause for concern, the same cannot be said for the Chinese and Russian ones. The ROK and Japanese forces have long maintained a cooperative relationship regarding the air space above Ieodo vis-à-vis their military hotline, as the air space above the marine research station was exclusively in the Japanese ADIZ prior to 2013. However, the ROKAF does not necessarily have the means to clear all Chinese intrusions with their People’s Liberation Army Air Force counterparts, as they only posses a military hotline with the Jinan Military region and not the Nanjing Military region. Additionally, Beijing has proved that it is not necessarily eager to cooperate with Seoul on the maritime issue.
Last May, China and Russia carried out joint maritime exercises for the first time in an area that is only 47km away from Ieodo without giving any prior notice to Seoul, forcing the ROK to belatedly deploy its KDX-II 4,500ton class destroyer and its F-15Ks to the area. Also, Russian forces have been intruding into the expanded KADIZ area with the intent of collecting reconnaissance on the US Navy during its joint training exercises. In the days leading up to Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2014, two Tu-95MS fighters entered the area where the ADIZ of South Korea and Japan overlap, forcing both the ROKAF and Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) to scramble two of its F-15s to intercept them.
As a US ally in the tension fraught Northeast Asian region, South Korea will have to walk a fine line between avoiding unnecessary clashes and enforcing its own maritime security interests in the region. As of now, Seoul and Beijing enjoy the friendliest relations in recent memory, but the ROKAF will need to prepare to respond to any potential threats over Ieodo and Jeju Island in the future. While the maritime security threat may not be more pressing than the existential North Korean missile and nuclear threat, China’s strategic maritime interests regarding Korea are likely to change once the Jeju Naval Base is completed and should Beijing suspect that Seoul would grant US Navy access to the base. The completion of the base could also heighten the territorial dispute over Ieodo, which has largely been eclipsed by the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) dispute up until now. Additionally, a variety of potential developments, including Russia’s worsening relations with the United States, could also potentially contribute to an increase in intrusions in the future.
The South Korean Air Force appears to be preparing for such possibilities as it is considering strengthening its aerial surveillance capabilities in the expanded KADIZ area. Last month, the South Korean media reported that the ROKAF was pushing a mid-term plan to procure two E-737 early warning planes to increase its aerial surveillance in the expanded KADIZ area. The ROKAF currently operates four Boeing 747 Peace Eye early warning aircraft, but was criticized for its inadequate surveillance capabilities especially in comparison to the JASDF’s 13 early warning planes. It also plans on upgrading its outdated long distance radar on the Jeju Air Control Unit to a more modern one in 2016. However, this may not be enough. As the ROKAF progresses in its construction of the Jeju Naval Base, more consideration can and should be given by policy makers in Seoul regarding the potential threats that South Korea could face in future in the East China Sea. Given South Korea’s geostrategic position between four of the greatest powers and one of the most unpredictable regions in the world, Seoul would be remiss to remain unprepared for a maritime security threat that is growing in its own back yard.
Photo: ROKAF F-15K Slam Eagles participate in Exercise Red Flag Alaska, 2013. Source: Republic of Korea Flickr page.