With the world’s attention focused on a potential confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea, a third player has built what may be the most powerful ship-for-ship fleet in Northeast Asia. Over the past fifteen years, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has expanded dramatically, acquiring a substantial fleet of modern, powerful warships. While the ROKN continues to prepare for the contingency of conflict with North Korea, it has become a force capable of significant foreign deployment. If Seoul maintains its commitment to the Navy, the ROKN could become one of the world’s premier middle power navies.
Since 1953, North Korea has posed the central strategic problem for the ROKN. The sinking of the Cheonan and the DPRK’s bombardment of offshore islands in 2010 served as harsh reminders of the maritime aspects of the North Korea dilemma. New designs (especially frigates) suggest a renewed emphasis on anti-submarine warfare. However, many of the capabilities of South Korea’s new warships seem geared towards global contingencies, rather than being designed to meet specific North Korean threats.
The Aegis equipped Sejong the Great (KD-III) class destroyers, for example, compare favorably with American, Japanese, and Chinese designs, carrying more missiles in VLS cells than their foreign counterparts. Although quite capable of engaging North Korea in a strike, air defense, or missile defense capacity, the three ships of the class represent a much more substantial commitment to surface warfare than the threat of the DPRK demands.