Korea’s maritime challengesJapan is planning to increase its fleet of destroyers equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System to eight from six. It will have the second-largest number of Aegis destroyers in the world after the United States. South Korea, which also employs the American ballistic defense system, has three Aegis radar-equipped destroyers. Additional Aegis ships will be included in the Japanese government’s reinforced basic defense program, which will be announced next month.
Tokyo wants to augment its Self-Defense Forces to better respond to increasing threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile development as well as tensions with China over a chain of islets in the East China Sea. Japan, which already owns a submarine with stealth capabilities that makes it invisible to radar and sonar systems, also expanded its subsurface fleet with new-generation submarines to 22 from 16. Japan would be capable of watching China’s underwater movements in both the East and South China seas with 22 submarines.
Japan’s Aegis vessels are also fitted with the sea-to-air Standard Missile-3 system, which is capable of detecting, tracking and intercepting ballistic missiles - possibly from North Korea - in space in cooperation with ground radar. South Korea’s most recently built Aegis-equipped destroyer Ryu Seong-ryong - produced in 2011 - has the SM-2 system that lacks interception capacity.
A destroyer with the Aegis system costs about 1.6 trillion won ($1.5 billion). It is the premier naval surface defense system that led the United States to win World War II. After being hit hard by the bombardment of the “kamikaze” suicide attacks by Japanese aircraft that crashed into American warships with bombs and explosives during the Pacific War, the United States began to develop a missile system to intercept and attack multiple targets from the air, sea and underwater. The word Aegis comes from the armor used by Zeus and Athena and is referred to as the shield of the gods. The United States has 60 Aegis-equipped vessels.
North Korea has made big strides in its long-range missile technology, and experts believe its intercontinental ballistic missile can deliver warheads as far as the U.S. mainland. China has beefed up its sea presence, moving its fleet beyond the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands, dominating the sea routes on the southern and eastern side of the mainland where more than 80 percent of the sea freight from South Korea and Japan pass.
China also built a major underground nuclear submarine base off Hainan Island at its southern tip capable of hiding its nuclear submarines from spy satellites. A pier 600 meters (657ㅛyards) long and 120 meters wide has been constructed to accommodate two carrier striker groups and assault ships.
Since unveiling its first aircraft carrier Liaoning last year, China plans to add several more aircraft carriers to beef up its maritime forces in open oceans. Its blue-water naval plan includes an atomic carrier that does not need refueling. China also owns submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can fire multiple warheads a distance of more than 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles) from the water. China’s sea expansion is part of the reason why Japan plans to reinforce its defense and surveillance capabilities through a larger Aegis fleet.
What does this all mean for South Korea? China and Japan locking horns over islets in the East China Sea are accelerating the arms race. We have no power to stop their contest, but at the same time, we just can’t just sit around and watch. We should have a minimum defense capacity and given our resources, reinforcement of submarine forces and defense missile systems would be ideal. As China and Japan are primarily beefing up naval and air forces, it’s better for us to strengthen our subsurface naval systems. Submarine forces are the most delicate and can be the last-resort protective system against enemies. The East Asia region is swept up in an unprecedented arms race. China and Japan have not been such rivals since World War II. The geopolitical climate in the region has become shaky amid renewed competition in defense spending. South Korea is in the best position to talk sense and warn about the dangers and vanity accompanying an arms race. South Korea’s global status as the world’s ninth largest trading country is larger than in the past. It must campaign for regional peace and co-prosperity with conviction and a vision. With no historical record of invasion, South Korea is best qualified to play peace-making mediator.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a professor of political science at Hanyang University.
by Kim Kyung-min