South Korea Is Once Again Thinking About Getting Nuclear Submarines

Michael Peck

Key Point: Is this a good idea? 

When North Korea is your neighbor, there are things you need. A strong army and air force, smart bombs, anti-missile defenses.

What you don’t need is nuclear-powered submarines to sail the ocean when the enemy is thirty miles from your capital city.

Nonetheless, South Korea is studying whether to buy nuclear-powered submarines. The South Korean navy has acknowledged that it has been running a task force to examine the development of nuclear subs.

“With longer-term perspectives to have nuclear-powered submarines, we have been running a task force of our own,” the Navy said in a report to South Korea’s parliament, according to the Yonhap news agency.

For now, the project appears to be just in the conceptual stage. “Operating the task force does not mean that the Navy is pushing for related projects in earnest, as nothing has been decided,” said a navy officer. “It is mainly collecting information regarding the matter.”

This isn’t the first time that the nuclear sub issue has arisen. In 2003, South Korea shelved the idea after it was leaked to the press. “Then in 2017, the defense ministry carried out research on the matter through private entities, which led the military to feel the necessity of the asset,” Yonhap said.

South Korea already has a conventional submarine program. In 2018, the navy launched the first of nine 3,700-ton KSS-III submarines—the first South Korean-designed sub, and one that will be armed with cruise and ballistic missiles. “Some speculate that the military might push to develop its 3,000-ton Chang Bo Go-III submarine as a nuclear-powered one,” Yonhap noted. “Currently, the country is carrying out the project to build the 3,000-ton indigenous submarine by 2031, with a process to develop its system set to begin in earnest this year.”

Nonetheless, the question remains: why does South Korea need nuclear submarines? True, they are prestige items. But a 19,000-ton U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile sub is big, expensive and relatively noisy compared to quiet Air-Independent Propulsion submarines such as the KSS-III.

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