“Of course you realize, this means war!”
- Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup
SOUTH KOREA LIVES in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by the Chinese dragon, the Russian bear, and its evil twin in Pyeongyang.
North Korea invaded the South in 1950 to ignite a bloody war, and their military provocations have continued over the ensuing half century. They tried to assassinate then-President Chun Doo-hwan in Burma in 1983. The plot failed to eliminate the primary target, but killed 21 other people instead, including four South Korean Cabinet members, presidential advisors, journalists, and four Burmese. They have kidnapped, tortured and killed countless private citizens from the South. Several South Korean sailors died in a naval battle with the North on the eve of the 2002 World Cup held jointly in South Korea and Japan. And just recently, the Northerners shot dead a South Korean tourist on one of their beaches, apparently just to watch her die.
The Chinese also invaded South Korea during the Korean War, and the two countries are involved in arcane territorial disputes that required extensive discussion in a 2006 summit meeting. While the Russians are not an immediate threat, they are in the habit of invading nearby countries every decade or so, as the world was reminded yet again in Georgia. Both have nuclear weapons, and who knows what the real story is with North Korea’s nuclear program. All three countries rank in the top ten worldwide in the number of army and navy personnel and military aircraft.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the South Koreans have expanded and enhanced their military capabilities and plan further growth in the future. Of particular note has been the South Korean effort to develop a blue water navy.
International military analysts have cited the need to maintain the regional balance of power—especially with China—and participation in humanitarian relief efforts as the reasons for this buildup. But that is not what the South Koreans tell themselves, either for consumption among the general public or for a more specialized audience.
Instead, their justification is a scenario so unlikely it should be at the bottom of the list of potential military threats for South Korean strategic planners, assuming it should be on any list at all.
Here’s what the former chief of naval operations and the father of the South Korean blue navy concept, Ahn Byeong-tae, told a seminar conducted at a research institute in March 2005:
“If South Korean and Japanese military forces should clash over Dokdo, the islets would be taken from us in a day. It might not even take a day. I can’t say for certain, but it might not even take half a day.”
Admiral Ahn might be technically correct, but any assumption that Japan would take military action over Takeshima/Dokdo/the Liancourt Rocks requires either a suspension of belief greater than that required to watch an Indiana Jones movie, or a willingness to believe a hypothesis for which no evidence exists. In 24 years in Japan, I have never seen or heard anything in the mass media even remotely suggesting military action as a solution for territorial disputes or military threats from another country, much less as a figment of a hyperactive imagination.
Yet the quote from Admiral Ahn comes from a three-part article (in Japanese) from the Chosun Ilbo published last month, which you can see here, here, and here. It’s a description of the relative strength of the South Korean and Japanese navies based on the extraordinary assumption that the Japanese would try to seize the islets by force. The following is a sample of the discussion. The sub-headings are translations of those used in the articles themselves.
South Korean naval strength 30% of Japan’s
The combat capabilities of the South Korean Navy have rapidly improved in the three years since (Admiral Ahn’s comments). The first South Korean-built Aegis destroyer, Sejong the Great, was launched, as well as the largest amphibious assault ship in Asia, the Dokdo. (It is also the largest ship in the South Korean navy.)
But Japan’s capabilities are greater. They have two new improved Aegis vessels and six Aegis destroyers in all. The Japanese have also recently launched their first helicopter carrier and a 3,000-ton submarine. The Japanese fleet is an aggregate 428,000 tons, while the South Korean fleet is just 137,000 tons.
Japan’s six-to-one Aegis advantage
The Aegis destroyer can spot incoming missiles and aircraft from 1,054 kilometers, and simultaneously discover 900 targets, including aircraft, ships, and missiles, from 500 kilometers. The new Japanese Aegis of the Atago class controls the East Sea (the Sea of Japan), and their Escort Flotilla 3 could sail in a convoy and reach Dokdo first in the event of a crisis.
A heavyweight versus a flyweight in warships and anti-ship missiles
The South Korean navy has 40 warships in the 1,000-ton class or above, but Japan has more than that in the 3,000-ton class or above. Both countries have anti-ship missiles for use against enemy vessels, most of which are the American-made Harpoon, but Japan has many more.
More than 65% of Japan’s fleet has been launched since 1984, so it has a higher ratio of newer vessels.
The difference in anti-submarine capabilities is as that between a man and a boy
The South Korean navy has nine submarines in the 1,200-ton class and one in the 1,800-ton class, but Japan has 16 larger subs ranging from 2,200 to 3,000 tons. It also has more than 90 P3C maritime patrol aircraft for anti-submarine activities, while South Korea has just eight. South Korea has 40 helicopters, while Japan has more than 90.
The KF16 naval aircraft can fight for only five minutes at Dokdo.
While South Korea has 500 naval fighter aircraft and Japan has 360, the Japanese planes have greater combat capabilities. They are also based closer to Dokdo, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces have superior refueling capabilities.
Dokdo’s distance from South Korean bases means that only the KF15 can fight in the skies above the islets for more than an hour. South Korea has 170 KF16s, which are capable of only five minutes of combat in the area…
There’s more, but you get the picture.
Meanwhile, it was also reported that Vice Admiral Seong Yeong-mu of the Strategy Planning Department called for the continued expansion of naval capabilities to a level 70% to 80% of those of Japan. Admiral Seong’s justification was that doing so would prevent Japan from creating a problem over Dokdo.
To be sure, some of this lurid speculation by the navy brass could be a ploy to get a bigger slice of the national military budget. The military establishment in other countries employs the same strategy, as do some politicians to win elections; John F. Kennedy famously warned of a non-existent missile gap with the Soviet Union during his presidential campaign.
Even assuming that part of the motivation is bureaucratic gamesmanship, however, the question of why Japan must be used as the shuttlecock remains unanswered. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated its malevolence and its willingness to use military options. The Chinese might not take overt military action (in the southern part of the peninsula, at any rate), but it must be assumed that their military buildup is designed, in part, to establish regional hegemony. Are South Koreans prepared to live on Chinese terms?
It would be far wiser for the South Koreans to find ways to encourage more amicable feelings toward Japan among its people than to exacerbate the tendency to indulge in unproductive emotionalism. They are the only two countries in the region sharing a commitment to democratic governments, free markets, and the rule of law. If they dropped the game, Japan could be the best friend South Korea has in the neighborhood. The potential benefits of partnership are enormous if the country ever chooses an option besides cutting off its nose to spite its face.
But it’s a lot safer to pick pretend fights with a country you know will never fight back. That allows the flyweight to keep talking tough without getting on the wrong side of the real thugs.
Finally, there is one more puzzling aspect to the Chosun Ilbo articles. They were translated into Japanese from the original Korean. Yet there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of those articles on their website. (That’s not to say English translations don’t exist, only that I couldn’t find any there.)
Does this mean that the South Korean intention was to rattle their new sabers just loud enough for the Japanese to hear, but quiet enough so that the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world wouldn’t notice? After all, why cause the guarantor of your security to think you’re goofy when it comes to the application of military force?
There might be a more innocent explanation, but South Korean behavior of late makes it difficult to extend the benefit of the doubt.
Afterwords: Here is an excellent summary of the strange territorial disputes between South Korea and China written by Andrei Lankov. Here’s a report of another Sino-Korean dispute over the submerged rock Ieodo. And here is a summary of the 2002 naval battle between North and South, presented by GI Korea. His post was particularly educational because it mentions a body of water called the West Sea.
A quick check of an atlas showed that what South Korea calls the West Sea is what everyone else in the world calls the Yellow Sea. That’s in addition to their claim that the Sea of Japan is really called the East Sea.
Don’t they realize how ridiculous it makes them look?