Monday, July 2, 2007

HONOLULU — The South Korean navy has begun to remake itself from a coastal patrol force intended to foil North Korea into a blue-water fleet able to project power onto the high seas, which has implications rippling out from Seoul to Singapore.

The navy has deployed its first Aegis destroyer, a high-tech ship designed to fight other ships, chase submarines and defend against aerial attacks.

Two more Aegis destroyers are to be added over the next five years, at a cost of $3.4 billion, with three more possible after that.

“South and North Korea will not keep picking quarrels with each other forever,” President Roh Moo-hyun said as the first ship was deployed this spring.

“We have to equip the nation with the capability to defend itself.”

Mr. Roh returned to a theme that has marked his presidency, which is to have South Korea rely less on the U.S. for security.

“We have to build up an adequate ability in all areas that constitute war power,” he said, “so that we will be able to defend ourselves without fail.”

South Korea’s plans also call for nine smaller destroyers, nine frigates, 32 corvettes and more than 100 patrol ships, minesweepers and logistic vessels to be built over the next 15 years.

Two large amphibious ships, and maybe a third, will each carry a battalion of 750 marines and 15 helicopters. Added to that will be 23 landing craft.

For missions under the sea, the Koreans plan to acquire 36 diesel-electric submarines.

In the air, the navy plans to obtain eight to 16 P3C anti-submarine planes and nearly sixty helicopters.

A new base is on the drawing board for the island of Cheju at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula to give the new fleet access to the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

South Korea’s navy already includes 39 warships, 20 submarines, 84 patrol and coastal combat vessels, 15 mine warfare ships, 12 amphibious vessels and 60 naval combat aircraft, according the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The North Korean navy has 43 missile craft, about 100 torpedo craft, 158 patrol craft, about 26 diesel submarines of Soviet design, 10 amphibious ships and 23 mine countermeasures ships, according to a report by the London-based institute.

The name of the South Korea’s new Aegis ship, King Sejong the Great, is emblematic.

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.”

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