South Korea's blue water ambitions

South Korea needs a blue water naval mission better aligned with regional priorities, writes Alexander M. Hynd.

Alexander M. Hynd is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and a research associate at UNSW’s Korea Research Initiatives.

South Korea has long faced a range of complex security challenges in its immediate maritime zone, from contested maritime borders, territorial disputes and illegal fishing, to the persistent threat posed by North Korea. Yet, over the last three decades, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has also expanded its role steadily away from coastal waters to the regional level and beyond.

The ROKN has increased its participation in joint naval exercises and port visits, providing key public goods in the form of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR), anti-piracy operations and conflict zone evacuations. This activity has been enabled by substantial government investment in new platforms such as its Aegis-equipped KDX-III destroyers, capable of acting as comfortably on the high seas as they do in peninsula waters.

For South Korea, preserving a maritime ‘rules-based order’ at the regional level is essential. The country is endowed with few natural resources, and effectively functions as a geostrategic island sealed off from the rest of continental Asia along the inter-Korean border.

Consequently, South Korean trade is predominantly maritime based. A large percentage of the country’s commerce flows through hazardous sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region and maritime Southeast Asia, with over 90% of its strategically important crude oil imports passing through the fiercely contested South China Sea.

Despite this, the country’s foreign policy elites have displayed ambivalence towards one contemporary attempt to articulate and strengthen a vision of a regional maritime ‘rules-based order’ – the US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). This is because South Korea is wary of alienating its largest trade partner, China, and suspicious of the historic links between the FOIP concept and Japan.

At the same time, one of the core strategic gambits behind South Korea’s evolving regional strategy is the desire to maximise its own autonomy at home and abroad, an aim that would be undermined if it were perceived to be following one great power while antagonising another.

In place of the FOIP, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pursued his own distinct regional vision, the New Southern Policy. Since 2017 this flagship initiative has sought to elevate Seoul’s relationships with the ten ASEAN states and India, focused around pillars known as the 3Ps: People, Prosperity and Peace. The ‘peace’ pillar, currently the least developed of the three, considers some non-traditional maritime security concerns but has little to say on securing the freedom of maritime routes, and is not sufficiently in sync with Seoul’s contemporaneous drive to develop and deploy a blue water navy.

One case in point is the country’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit, which has been continuously deployed on the fringes
of the Indo-Pacific as part of a multilateral force protecting international shipping in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. This deployment consists of a 4,500 ton destroyer, a rigid inflatable boat, a military helicopter, and a 300-strong staff including special forces personnel.

The material commitment involved is magnified due to the distance from Korea and the need to maintain a constant deployment – as one destroyer is active another is typically sailing to or from South Korea, while a third may be undergoing repairs.

The Cheonghae Unit has provided valuable public goods and defended Seoul’s interests admirably over the last decade, but it is not incorporated within the country’s regional strategy.

As incidences of piracy in the Gulf of Aden decrease, South Korean policymakers have instead looked to the global level in search of a new mission to satisfy their blue water ambitions. In 2019 South Korea flirted with the idea of redeploying the unit to join a US-led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz, and in mid-2021 the entire staff had to be airlifted home from active deployment after 90% contracted COVID-19 during an anti-piracy mission off the west coast of Africa.

South Korea needs a blue water naval mission that is better aligned with its regional priorities, avoiding over-extension to the global level. The Cheonghae Unit and other existing ROKN assets can be harnessed to secure vital trade routes throughout the Indo-Pacific region as part of a more comprehensive regional strategy.

This does not mean that Seoul should, or would, countenance a role in the US’ Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). Instead, the ROKN should play a larger role in boosting the naval capabilities of its Southeast Asian partner states, providing the training and equipment necessary to create greater balance between the region’s naval forces.

Additionally, by focusing some of its blue water efforts on non-state challenges to good order at sea such as piracy and armed robbery, Seoul could develop a distinctive long-term role for its new blue water capabilities, while maintaining its strategic autonomy and freeing up resources for other states similarly concerned with strengthening the regional maritime order.