(From the National Interest)
By Euan Graham
Four years ago I wrote about South Korea’s strategically far-sighted but locally controversial plans to construct a new naval base on Jeju island. After speaking at last week’s Jeju Forum I couldn’t resist an invitation from the Korean Institute for Maritime Strategy to slip away between panel discussions to attend a briefing at the newly opened facility.
The major locational advantage of the base for South Korea, given its hemmed-in geography, is that it faces onto the relatively open waters of the East China Sea. The ROK Navy (ROKN) has existing facilities at Busan and Jinhae, and previously operated a small facility on Jeju’s northern coast. But the much larger, south-facing base offers unobstructed access to South Korea’s major sea lines of communication passing through the western Pacific.
Seoul’s commitment to invest in a major new base on South Korea’s southernmost extent of territory suggests a broader significance: a recognition that the country needs to broaden its strategic horizons beyond the ever-present threat from the North. This is something that deserves encouragement, given South Korea’s unrealized potential as a middle power with global maritime interests, and a stake in freedom of navigation very similar to Japan.
The ROKN has long nurtured ambitions to develop into an ocean-going ‘blue-water’ force. It has taken considerable strides towards this goal, acquiring an impressive, domestically-built force structure, while playing second or third fiddle within a defense force configured to deter an adversary who is still primarily land-based (but moving increasingly into hybrid and asymmetrical dimensions of warfare).
In 2010, the loss of a South Korean corvette with 46 sailors in coastal waters to a suspected North Korean torpedo attack was a brutal reality check for the ROKN’s strategic ambitions. Against such real-world threats, covering coastal contingencies and blue-water operations in parallel is a stretch for a middle-sized navy like South Korea’s. Read more