South Korea strengthens Navy

South Korea strengthens Navy

Felix Kim

Building a “stronger and healthier” Navy for the Republic of Korea (ROK) was the goal announced by Adm. Um Hyun-seong, South Korea’s chief of naval operations, to a group of admirals and branch leaders from Navy headquarters as they gathered to pay respects to fallen Soldiers and Seamen at Daejeon National Cemetery on January 2, 2018, in Daejon, South Korea.

Um spoke about the need to improve his country’s Navy within the context of Defense Reform 2.0, the sweeping program of reform across ROK’s military and defense sector advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in since his election campaign in spring 2017.

“Defense reform is not only an order from the people but also a national mission of the times,” Um told his audience. “This is the first year of Defense Reform 2.0. We should keep in mind that it is directly related to our final goal, ‘We Must Win If We Fight, Credible Navy.’”

Um further emphasized the need for ROK’s 41,000-strong Navy and 23,000-strong Marine Corps to protect South Koreans by preventing threats and protecting “the sovereignty and rights and interests over waters,” according to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

Um’s message follows the ROK Navy’s call in October 2017 for a new “mobile fleet,” to include several 6,000-ton KDDX-class Aegis destroyers and three additional 7,600-ton KDX-III Aegis destroyers, all equipped with an advanced ballistic missile defense system and ship-to-surface missiles and to be built over the next five to seven years, according Yonhap, the government-affiliated news agency. (Pictured: ROK’s first Aegis destroyer, a KDX-III called the King Sejong, was launched in May 2007 in Ulsan.)

While debate remains open on whether the Navy will get its new ships, even as ROK’s defense budget swells to an all-time high, Yonhap reported, the country appears committed to Defense Reform 2.0.

Retired ROK Army Lt. Gen. Chun In-Bum described the reform effort in a report for the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, as a five-part effort: countering the North Korean nuclear threat, returning wartime operational control to ROK, civilian control of the military, fighting corruption and boosting innovation in the defense sector, and improving human rights and service conditions for ROK troops.

Yang Uk, a senior researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Defense and Security Forum, emphasized the role of personnel development in Defense Reform 2.0 in a talk with FORUM.

“The Navy put great emphasis on strengthening its capabilities by recruiting better human resources,” Yang said. “It is said that there will be not enough crew members aboard the fleets that the Navy has, meaning the Navy may not be able to operate its assets effectively and efficiently. Therefore, they came up with various plans which focus on recruiting better to make the Navy stronger. More technically skilled human resources are required for the Navy and Air Forces than the Army.”

Countering threats from the North, Yang explained, demands that the ROK Navy put more weight on developing its capabilities with the vision of stronger joint forces with the Air Force and Army, with acute consideration to events in North Korea. It must also address changing demographics and conscription policy, both of which could affect troop strength.

“The ROK military needs to prepare for the government’s plan to curtail its forces and shorten mandatory service terms for conscripts,” he said. “The Navy seems to think they would be hit hardest. The Navy and Air Force both recruit volunteers, but the Navy has had difficulty in recruiting enough.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.