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The Peninsula

South Korea’s Persistent Maritime Challenges

Published March 26, 2022

The Republic of Korea Navy held a launch ceremony for its new frigate with enhanced anti-submarine capabilities on March 22. A high-ranking navy official at the ceremony specifically underscored that the new warship was armed with “high-tech, homegrown weapons.” This systematic investment in improving the navy’s combat abilities reflects the serious maritime threats that the country faces.

Pyongyang’s provocations along the maritime border over the last 2 decades convinced the South Korean navy that it needed to more rapidly modernize its fleet. In June 1999, North Korean vessels illegally entered South Korean waters and began attacking ships in the area. While the South Korean navy responded to this incursion by sinking several offending vessels, the North Korean navy retaliated in June 2002 with an attack that killed six South Korean sailors and sunk a patrol boat. On March 26, 2010, the South Koran navy suffered its most dramatic loss when North Korea’s torpedo sunk the corvette Cheonan, killing 48 sailors on board.

These attacks underscored that naval warfare remained a space where South Korea’s military has yet to develop sufficient strength to make incursions and other provocations prohibitively costly for North Korea. Complicating the matter, North Korea reportedly maintains one of the world’s largest submarine fleets. While the existing fleet is old and limited in its capability, recent intelligence reports suggest Pyongyang is invested in developing submarines with ballistic missile launch capabilities. The new assets of the South Korean navy appear to be a direct response to these current and anticipated threats.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Kayla Harris, David Lee, Sarah Marshall, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture from the flickr account of Johnny Silvercloud

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