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South Korea’s Naval Base on Ulleung Island

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • October 03, 2011

    South Korea’s decision to build a naval base at Sadong Port on Ulleung Island is causing strains in its relationship with Japan. Ulleung is the closest South Korean territory to the disputed islets (known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan) in the Sea of Japan which is claimed by both countries. South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs will provide 217.5 billion Won for the base, while the remainder of the cost will be borne by the Ministry of National Defence. The construction is likely to begin in early 2012. Once completed in 2015, the “forward-deployment” naval base will feature a 300-metre (990 feet) pier big enough to accommodate high-tech Aegis destroyers as well as South Korea’s 14,000 ton amphibious landing ship, the Dokdo.

    South Korea hopes that the new base will help strengthen its territorial rights on Dokdo as the base would enable its ships to reach the islands quickly. It takes approximately two hours and fifty minutes for a Japanese naval vessel to reach Dokdo from the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture. From Ulleung, South Korean ships would be able to reach Dokdo Island in an hour and a half. Presently it takes around four hours for a South Korean naval vessel to reach Dokdo from the port of Jukbyeon in Uljin, North Gyengsang Province, which is currently the closest port to Dokdo.

    Tensions between South Korea and Japan over Dokdo have been flaring up in the past few months. In June when Korean Air mounted a test flight of its new aircraft over Dokdo, Japan’s foreign ministry termed it as a violation of “Japan’s airspace”. In response, Tokyo ordered its public servants to boycott Korean Air for a month. Later, in early August, when three conservative members of the Japanese Diet visited Seoul on their way to Ulleung Island in a high-profile trip that was seen in South Korea as yet another attempt to boost Japan’s claim to the disputed islets, the visit was met with angry protests in Seoul. The lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party were sent back to Japan on the same day despite their refusal to leave. South Korea followed this up with a strong diplomatic protest against Japan’s 2011 defence white paper, which described the islands as Japanese territory. It was against this backdrop of escalating diplomatic tensions over the islands that South Korea unveiled its plan to construct the naval base on Ulleung. Earlier this year the South Korean Navy also announced plans to deploy new frigates in the to-be-constructed base.

    The sparsely inhabited islets, located in waters rich in marine life, have been a source of diplomatic rows between the two countries. Since 1954 South Korea has stationed a small marine police force on the islets, which Japan describes as illegal occupation. For its part, South Korea has consistently rejected Japanese claims over Dokdo. Seoul argues that it reclaimed sovereignty over all its territory, including Dokdo and many other islands around the Korean Peninsula, when it regained independence. South Korea views Japan’s territorial claims as a sign that Japan has not fully repented for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

    South Korea’s decision to build the naval base on Ulleung island and its plan to develop another naval base on the Jeju island seem to be part of a larger strategy to build up defence infrastructure and expand the country’s defence capability. According to the its defence ministry, South Korea’s defence budget in 2012 will increase by 5.6 per cent compared to the current year. The 33.1 trillion Won budget will be spent on enhancing the combat readiness of the military and the fortification of five border islands which are vulnerable to potential attack by North Korea. The ministry is also planning to purchase new combat equipment, improve military medical facilities and boost investment in defence research and development efforts. About 25.8 billion Won will be earmarked for a programme designed to nurture experts to counter the growing threats of cyber terrorism.

    As a part of its defence acquisition programme, South Korea received in August 2011 its first airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft from Boeing. Named “Peace Eye”, the first surveillance aircraft landed at the Air Force base in Gimhae, about 450 km southeast of Seoul. Under a $1.6 billion contract signed in November 2006, Boeing is to deliver four of these aircraft to South Korea by 2012. The surveillance aircraft is equipped with a multi-role electronically scanned radar antenna and can detect and monitor up to 1,000 airborne or surface targets simultaneously within a 370-km radius. The first aircraft has now been deployed with the South Korean Air Force after undergoing test flights and acceptance trials.

    For South Korea, the threat from North Korea is real. The naval base in Jeju Island is being developed to counter the threat from the North. China’s assertive stance in the South China Sea, where South Korea along with other regional countries has contending claims, is another factor behind Seoul’s ramped up defence preparedness. However, compared to the threats from North Korea and China, South Korea’s perceived threats from Japan for control of the Dokdo islets and the steps it is taking to develop the naval base on Ulleung Island seem overdone. Sovereignty over the Dokdo islets has more emotive value than strategic considerations for South Korea. What is shaping South Korea’s defence policy vis-à-vis Japan is the bitterness over its historical experience at the hands of Japan. But the fact remains that Japan’s current defence policy shows no sign of reverting to its military expansionist past. South Korea’s security strategy therefore needs to be crafted in the context of present day reality.