South Korea emerges as a sea power

Oct. 31—This summer at the biennial Exercise Rim of the Pacific in Hawaii, the Republic of Korea navy sent its largest-ever participating force to the recurring naval war game.

This summer at the biennial Exercise Rim of the Pacific in Hawaii, the Republic of Korea navy sent its largest-ever participating force to the recurring naval war game. About 1, 000 sailors and marines trained on and around the islands, operating aboard the amphibious assault ship ROKS Marado, the destroyer ROKS Sejong the Great and submarine ROKS Shin Dol-seok.

RIMPAC's multinational amphibious task force was led by South Korean Rear Adm. Ahn Sangmin. The exercise culminated in marines from nine countries—including South Korea—storming the beach at Pyramid Rock on Aug. 1.

But the South Korean influence on the exercise was actually larger than immediately evident. The Philippine navy's new guided-missile frigate BRP Antonio Luna, the Peruvian navy corvette BAP Guise, the New Zealand navy's oil refueler HMNZS Aotearoa and the U.S.-flagged commercial fuel tanker Maersk Perry—which all participated in RIMPAC 2022—are also Korean-built.

South Korea has one the world's largest shipbuilding industries and is now emerging as a naval powerhouse as it builds warships for its own navy and those of countries around the region.

Once dependent largely on hand-me-down American warships, Seoul began a major push in the 1970s to produce locally built naval vessels. By 1999 the ROK navy unveiled "Navy Vision 2020, " its strategic vision for the 2020s, which included plans for eventual aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines. South Korea has steadily pursued that vision as it has and an increasingly important player on the global stage.

"It is a maritime industrial power that punches way above its weight, " said Adm. Samuel Paparo, the Oahu-based commander of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet. Paparo's personal affection for South Korea is evident—both U.S. and South Korean officials openly joke about his love of Korean pop culture, which has become popular globally in recent years. But he also admires the ROK navy as a battle-tested force.

Few modern navies have experienced any real combat in the 21st century. But along the Northern Limit Line, the maritime border separating North and South Korean waters, the two navies have fought a series of small battles and skirmishes over the years. Paparo told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that makes the ROK navy one of the world's most experienced navies and that as it grows it's become an attractive training partner for other nations wanting to learn from Korean sailors—and possibly buy Korean-built ships.

"That combination of their experience as mariners and the growing capability of their heavy industries makes them a key power, " he said.

A maritime nation South Korea's growth as a shipbuilding and maritime nation has been born largely out of necessity. Though South Korea is on the Asian mainland, its enduring standoff with North Korea blocks its only land border, leaving it dependent on the sea to connect it to the outside world. As Seoul's trading power has grown, it has sought to shape global trade and shipping policy. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates international shipping, has been headed by South Korea's Lim Kitack since 2016.

Working at sea can be dangerous, and Seoul has sought to protect its seafarers around the world. In 2009 a small detachment of ROK navy warships sailed to the Indian Ocean as part of the multinational effort to combat Somali pirates who have disrupted international shipping. When pirates seized the South Korean-­operated tanker MV Samho Jewelry in 2011, a team of South Korean navy commandos boarded the tanker and, over the course of a five-hour battle, killed five pirates, captured five others and successfully freed all 21 crew members.

The anti-piracy deployments are ongoing. But now concerns of trouble at sea are closer to home for Seoul as tensions have ratcheted up in the South China Sea, a critical waterway where one-third of all international trade moves through. Territorial and navigation disputes have led to increasing militarization of the sea.

China claims nearly the entire sea as its own sovereign territory, against the objections of many of its neighbors. The Chinese military has built bases on disputed islands and reefs to assert its claims and occasionally has harassed fishermen and commercial vessels from neighboring countries. The U.S. Navy, for its part, has been conducting near-constant "freedom of navigation " operations in the region.

"Whenever there is a discussion about the situation in the South China Sea, which is one of the flashpoints these days, we always emphasize that the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea should be completely respected, " said former ROK Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam. "A lot of the imports for Korea, including crude oil, come through the South China Sea. So maritime stability, maritime peace, all those things are very, very important for Korea."

The establishment of blockades or the breakout of open conflict in the South China Sea potentially could shut down commercial shipping and usher in world-changing economic impacts.

"I hope such a bad scenario would not play out, " said Cho Seongdae, director of the Korean International Trade Association's Center for Trade Studies Cooperation in Seoul. He said few people in trade circles openly discuss the scenario because of how massive the impact would be.

"I went to graduate school in the U.S. in the 1990s. Then was the era of the WTO (World Trade Organization ), market opening and globalization, " said Cho. "Now is the era of economy, trade and security. Nobody thought about there being a link between trade and security in 1990s. Now everybody thinks it."

Escalating tension between China and Taiwan have raised concerns of the potential for conflict in the Pacific.

"We have to ensure the free navigation of maritime paths in the Pacific Ocean, including the Taiwan Strait, " said Kim Jin Pyo, speaker of the ROK National Assembly. "I believe that cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region has to be expanded in the future, " he added, noting that South Korea has stepped up naval cooperation with Australia and Japan.

But in discussing China, Kim was diplomatic, saying, "We have a cooperative communication system between us, and if there is any military exercises going on, then we should inform each other in advance in a very transparent manner and this should be strictly adhered to in order to avoid any conflict between the two countries. I believe that there is not a major issue military issue between the two countries."

Delicate balance South Korea is in many ways torn between conflicting commitments. Though Seoul has continued to partner with the U.S. to bolster its national security, 25 % of South Korea's trade is with China. The latter relationship has proved instrumental to the country's economic boom.

But public opinion polls show an increasing distrust of Beijing in South Korea. During the country's 2022 election, the ROK's newly elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol, criticized his predecessor Moon Jae-in for not doing more to stand up to China. The annual Asan Institute for Policy Studies' "South Koreans and Their Neighbors " poll found that until late 2016, China consistently scored above 5 on a 0-to-10 scale in terms of favorability, but since 2017 its favorability grade has fallen to a range between 4 and 2.

When asked in the 2022 poll which country South Korea should strengthen ties with if U.S.-Chinese tensions continue, respondents favored the U.S. by more than 85 %, compared with nearly 60 % in 2016. South Koreans have become critical of Beijing's human rights record after the violent crackdown on activists in Hong Kong as well as uneasy about Chinese actions at sea.

A senior South Korean official told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that there are concerns about "dark shipping " by Chinese vessels—off-the-books transfers of goods at sea to North Korean ships in violation of international sanctions aimed at stemming Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The Korean official told the Star-Advertiser that the ROK has been stepping up cooperation with Japan to track and interdict dark shipping efforts.

Relations between South Korea and Japan, which subjected the Korean Peninsula to brutal colonial rule, have long been frosty. Though the two have trained together and trade relations are strong, Koreans still distrust their former occupiers. But both are increasingly united by concerns about.

"Common threats are helping Korea and Japan overcome a long and complicated history, " said Pa ­paro. "The United States' bilateral alliances with each makes the United States very much key interlocutors for each and is a catalyst for the continued partnership that we're seeing."

Many of the efforts to smooth over those differences have taken place in Hawaii.

"Hawaii is itself so multicultural, such a crossroads of great civilizations, " said Paparo. "We are cultivating the bonds through our multilateral exercises. That enables states that have these differences to overcome their differences, sharing techniques and procedures by being in one another's company."

At the South Korean Consulate in Honolulu, the Korean government maintains a military attache office. The Honolulu consulate was once considered a relaxing station for South Korean diplomats as they dealt with tourists and the Korean diaspora while enjoying the sun in their off-hours. But as tensions simmer around the Pacific, it has become a key diplomatic outpost for the ROK as it engages with dignitaries and military commanders from around the region who come to Hawaii for meetings and war games.

Until recently, China also participated in various military and security engagements in Hawaii. The Chinese navy participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and 2016 but was disinvited in 2018 as relations between Washington and Beijing soured. Various military-to-military engagements continued, but after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, Beijing broke off all military and climate talks with the United States. Officials from countries around the region, including South Korea, say they would like to see the two sides reengage and cool tensions.------Editor's note : Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Kevin Knodell participated in the East-West Center's 2022 Korea-United States Journalists Exchange. Through the fellowship, he reported on this story in both South Korea and Hawaii.------