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Ruling from 1418 to 1450, King Sejong is best known for having fostered a simplified alphabet that enabled all Koreans to read and write. He also sent Korean forces to fight Chinese in Manchuria and Japanese pirates.

Today, South Koreans are divided between those who would retain the alliance with the U.S. forged in the Korean War of 1950 to “53 and those who seek independence or a tilt toward China.

Many naval officers, having operated with the U.S. Navy for years, favor a continued alliance.

“The Korean navy,” said an admiral “should build a force that can support the [South Korea-U.S.] alliance.”

Those officers, however, appear to harbor the same antipathy toward Japan as most of their compatriots and suggest that their new fleet may one day confront Japan, which ruled Korea with an iron hand from 1910 to 1945. At the very least, they see Japan as a rival whose fleet they aim to match.

U.S. officials, who consider the alliance with Japan vital to U.S. security posture in Asia, privately lament the Korean attitude toward Japan.

Some have urged the Koreans to put the past behind them and to dismiss what one called “the myth that Japan is going back to the militarism of the 1930s.”

Other than that, U.S. officials quietly applaud the South Korea’s plans.

Senior Korean naval officers said an essential reason for enlarging their fleet was to protect their sea lines of communication.

All of South Korea’s foreign trade is seaborne because it is cut off from mainland Asia by the demilitarized zone that splits the Peninsula.

South Korea imports, for instance, 78 percent of its petroleum from the Middle East.

“There is no doubt,” concluded a U.S. naval officer, “that [South Korea‘s] future prosperity depends on the use of the sea. Building a naval force to defend this maritime domain is becoming a key issue in [South Korea‘s] future national security strategy.”