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Essay: Korean conflict and capabilities

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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
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  • Published: December 19, 2019*
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  • Korean conflict and capabilities
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The 1950-53 Korean war ended in an armistice instead of a formal peace declaration, or technically the United Nations forces led by the US are at war with the North. The recent stalemate in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea have further exposed the frustrations within the US administration in dealing with the one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship of Kim Jong-un.

Since the end of the Korean War in July 1953, skirmishes and covert infiltration attempts between the two countries – mostly along the de facto maritime border known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL) – have not been uncommon. However, both countries understand that a full-scale renewal of hostilities would be disastrous for both Koreas – a risk that the more developed and wealthy ROK has attempted to deter through its continued mutual defence treaty with the United States and considerable military investment of its own.
The ramping-up of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme and simultaneous development of a submarine launched ballistic missile capability has only served to exacerbate tensions on the peninsula. It also impacts the complex and often delicate web of geopolitical and economic relations that exist between the other main regional players, notably North Korea’s benefactor, China; South Korea’s main ally, the United States; and Japan.

Sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan on the night of 26 March 2010 by what South Korea claimed was a surprise torpedo attack from a North Korean midget submarine provided a stark reminder of the fragile state of peace that exists between the two Koreas. The heavily militarised Korean peninsula – with the unpredictable and isolated communist ruled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the economically prosperous Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south – remains an active ‘hotspot’.

The North Korean Navy operates a fleet of over 70 submarines of various kinds mostly with obsolete or old technology (twenty Romeo-class submarines, forty Sang-O ‘Shark’) class coastal submarines (SSCs) and ten midget submarines of the Yono class). Given the vintage and technologies used, the reliability of much of this large fleet is suspect. However, there are newer types including a handful armed with one or more ballistic missiles which are being rapidly developed which could be the serious North Korean Submarine threat.

As all nuclear powers do, the North Koreans have logically spread their nuclear arsenal amongst different delivery systems to keep the enemy guessing. The current shift in the focus toward the development of a submarine-based system is a paradigm shift in the thinking of the North Korean leadership who may have realised that it is the best alternative option considering that they are better to deploy tactically compared to land systems. North Korea is attempting to spread its arsenal between land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

While on the surface it may seem that the apparent obsolete technology of the conventional submarine arm, and limited reach or strike capability of the North Koreans could be contained by the South Korean, US and Japanese assets, it would be prudent to analyse the North Korean capabilities vis-à-vis the South Korean capabilities. Considering only the submarine arm of the NKPA, the large fleet could be easily used to divert attention or to make the enemy react in a particular manner, justifying an attack which is carried out using submarine /land based ballistic missiles. North Koreas history of armed provocations proves that it is quite capable of such tactics.

Under Kim Jong-Un, the Korean Peoples Navy (KPN) has initiated a number of modernisations of existing submarines since the early 2000. Key modernization have been of the Romeo class (about 22 in Numbers) and construction of the 34 m Sang-O class for special operation (to eventually replace the Romeo class). Around 1999-2000 an enlarged reconnaissance submarine called the Sang-O II class (K-300-class SSC) were constructed and by 2005 several were in service.

North Korea launched its first SSBA at the Sinpo South Shipyard in July 2014. The ‘Sinpo’ or ‘Gorae’ (“Whale”) class (displacing 1500 tonnes and 67 m length and 6.7 m width) Diesel Electric ballistic-missile submarine (SSB) program has blended the launch technology from Golf class ballistic missile submarines in the submarines sail area and can launch the Pukkusong-1 ballistic missiles. The next in class or the SINPO-C, a diesel electric submarine with a displacement of 2000 ton and a beam width of 36 feet would carry one or two ballistic missiles. This new technology is purposely designed to enhance the reach of the nuclear weapons launch platform closer to their targets in S Korea while keeping them safe from being attacked. While the apparent lack of sophisticated technology with North Korea means that it would be subject to easy detection by the US and its allied anti submarine forces, the submarine would however have a fairly good chance of being able to reach its launch position submerged to carry out a strike with the two stage Pukguksong-1 missile having an estimated range of above 700 nms to target any location in South Korea or Japan.

North Korea may be struggling to develop nuclear headed airborne missiles but its current policy of modernising and arming the delivery platform i.e. its submarine fleet needs serious consideration. In 2015, apparently many of these could not be accounted for thereby setting off alarms . The possession of an ability to launch missiles from a submarine rather than a static site widens the risk assessment for its enemies.

So what are the ROKN capabilities against the PRK N SLBM threat ?

The key to this question lies in the statement in 2017 by Vice Adm. Lee, Ki-Sik, Commander of the Republic of Korea Fleet “Our ROK-US alliance will counter the North Korean nuclear development and SLBM threats with determination.” But this alliance is also full of gaps .

The ROKN launched an independent submarine command 01 Feb 2015 , highlighting its emphasis on undersea operations. The Command, the sixth of its kind in the world, brings operations, logistics, training and maintenance under one roof, according to Navy officials. The command’s main mission is to better protect the country from North Korean naval provocations. The command, located in the southern port city of Jinhae, operates thirteen diesel-electric submarines (nine 1,200-ton type 209 or Chang Bogo class ( batch II harpoon missile capable) KSS-I, and eight 1,800-ton type 214 HDW Son Wonil-class with AIP (KSS-II) with one more being commissioned by 2019.

In other plans, the Navy also will deploy nine 3,000-ton heavy attack submarines, code named KSS-III, equipped with multiple vertical launch tubes to fire 1,500-kilometer cruise missiles that could hit key targets in North Korea. The development of the KSS-III lead ship started last November at the dockyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering.

To beef up anti-submarine operations, the Navy plans to procure 12 more helicopters; in 2013, the service bought eight AW-159 Lynx Wildcat helicopters for about $540 million.

Frigate acquisition plans also are on track. Under the FFX batch I program, five 2,300-ton Incheon-class frigates have been commissioned, with one more hull planned to be set afloat this year. The warship will take charge of operations, such as coastal patrol and anti-submarine warfare. The ship has a hull-mounted sonar and six torpedo tubes carrying indigenously developed “Blue Shar” 324mm torpedoes. Under the second batch program, up to 12 more frigates are projected to enter service by 2020. These ships are expected to be slightly larger and feature a vertical launch system for locally designed medium-range air defense missiles in place of the batch I’s short-range RAM.

Meanwhile, South Korea has also agreed to allow the United States Army to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile unit to the Korean peninsula. While the deployment would definitely counter any North Korean missile attack, the placement of such weapons on the Korean peninsula has raised concerns in Beijing and Moscow —both of which oppose such a deployment.

US Navy is pitching its Arleigh Burke class USS Spruance along with ROKN AEGIS destroyers, Submarines, and AS helicopters as well as US and ROKN MPAs in a joint Anti Submarine warfare exercise to demonstrate the unified defensive naval force capabilities of the ROKN and its allies from surface, sub surface and ballistic missile threat.

Post 2010 attacks South Korean redressed its naval short comings and signed a joint counter provocation contingency plan with US to enhance allied defences and deterrence capabilities. South Korea assumed greater responsibility after transfer of its wartime operational command(OPCON) in 2015. However, South Korea Navy finds itself being pulled outwards for (greater regional and global responsibility) and inward (defending the country). For this South Korea has to have a comprehensive naval strategy and force structuring.

Since inception the south Korean Naval forces have been under emphasised in comparison to its land /ground forces relying more on US naval forces. As a result, the ROKN fleet remained smaller than required for fully addressing the North Korean threat. In addition, greater global responsibilities without commensurate increase in platforms and personnel will eventually lead to exhaustion of operational tempo straining the service. There are perceptions that US ROK intel, tracking, command and control issues are insufficient to provide for a bilateral integrated naval operation to counter the N Korean threat.

A strong ASW is required to counter the N Korean threat. While there has been significant joint surface warfare training between US and south Korea land, air and surface navy forces the same is not true with regards to submarine operation primarily due to US excessive secrecy on submarine operations and ASW. Although south Korea has operated submarines for more than 20 years it could learn a lot from US counterparts and advocates that Washington increases the sharing of information on tactical operations. U S responds that there is justification of limited sharing only due to cases of unauthorized disclosure of classified information of or attempts at reverse engineering

In July 2016, the United States and South Korea agreed to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and corresponding AN/TPY-2 radar in South Korea in response to North Korea’s provocative actions. The three tier system comprises of the three ship based SM-2 Aegis System (long range missile defence systems) and ESSM (Medium-range air defense system) based on the three ‘Sejong the Great’ class destroyers as the outer most layer followed by the THAAD system and the inner layer comprising of MIM-104 Patriot/PAC-2 medium to long range air defense (PAC-2 GEM/ T Interceptors), Chunma (K-SAM) short range air defence system, Chiron Missile System and Mistral Missile System and KM-SAM medium range air defence systems.
RoKN is the key agency which is rapidly modernizing to be prepared for the underwater threat. The service is undergoing a transformation into a blue-water force with quantum enhancement and modernisation of its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. The Navy’s impetus stems from a 2010 experience in which ROK forces detected only 28% of North Korean submarines involved in exercises . Currently, while the RoKN would be somewhat able to maintain a barrier to prevent a sub from crossing over, it and its allies would not be able to keep a continuous surveillance of all North Korean submarines to detect, track and intercept any sub launched long range missiles from within its waters prior to launch, making the North Korean Submarine threat very real.
RoKN’s two prominent modernisation programmes are the Incheon (FFXI) and FFXII classes of guided-missile frigates. The platforms feature hull-mounted and towed-array sonars of Thales for improved submarine-prosecution capability and can embark the Agusta Westland AW159 ASW helicopter that has been equipped with Thales’ FLASH Compact Sonics low-frequency active dipping sonar and acoustic processing suite.

In a conventional ASW scenario the South Korean Navy ships, Lynx/Super Lynx/Wildcats helicopters and P3C Orions have an upper hand in a 1:1 ASW hunter killer action. However, the ROKN has only eight AW159 acquired in 2016 and are in the process of acquiring 12 new helicopters which are expected to be operational by 2020 primarily planned to be deployed with the future surface combatants of ROKN. The ROKN will have a force of 16 upgraded Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion maritime aircraft by 2018. Additionally, the ROKN is seeking 20 more maritime aircraft, which would considerably augment its anti-submarine capability.

Given that the maximum submerged speeds of typical North Korean submarines tend to be in the 4-13kts range coupled with their poor indiscretion rates (ratio of time spent recharging batteries at or near the surface to time spent submerged) and largely obsolete technologies including sonars with low ranges, they can easily be detected by the modern sensors on ROKN aircraft and ships at ranges of 15-20nm using sonars and possibly double that using radars if the submarines are snorkeling. Once detected and acquired by the attacking torpedoes sensors, their chances of avoiding these torpedoes (which have speeds of 32 -45+ knots) are very slim., though a handful of NK submarines could notionally penetrate the South Korean ASW barrier using innovative tactics and hugging rocky coastlines, the technological advantages and platforms possessed by the air, surface and undersea platforms of the ROK Navy is more than adequate to counter the conventional North Korean submarine threat (without ballistic missile).

In addition to enhancing its capabilities in terms of assets South Korea has to improve its Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities to enable integrated combat capabilities down to tactical level with enhanced long range precision strike capabilities and improved surveillance capabilities including undersea.
A comprehensive multi layered defence system has to be developed and deployed instead of a limited independent defence system with enhancement of the PAC-3 ground based and SM-3 ship based missiles with latest SM 6 missiles.

Enhance Assistance in Naval intelligence in the matters of ocean surveillance for both coastal and blue water operations initiating trilateral missile defence cooperation and exercise with US and Japan

The west sea is a highly complex and difficult ASW environment and perhaps the worst possible conditions due to shallow depth, salinity, high commercial traffic, trawler bottom nets disturbing the emplaced sensors degrading the capabilities of the passive and active sonars. Considering the vast area of surveillance, and the existing capability of the ROKN there is a need to pool in resources of the U.S and Japan to form a network along with underwater sensors and detectors fixed on the ocean floor or floating on the open water, as well as devices mounted on other subs, ships, UUVs, aircraft, helicopters and satellites to get a common underwater sea picture. Maybe on the long run the South Korean Navy could procure nuclear submarines for a 24/7 surveillance of its waters

Air and land-based nuclear delivery systems are generally viewed as vulnerable to an enemy attack given the need for fixed infrastructure. North Korea has progressed to the next step of a nuclear weapon state by creating the ‘third leg’ of the nuclear triad at sea. Given the size and impenetrability of the oceans, in the event of a nuclear attack, SSBs will be difficult to find and target. A key component of nuclear deterrence theory is having the ability to guarantee a ‘second strike’, regardless of the extent of the attack suffered. North Korea via its third leg (the submarine) is ensuring this retaliatory, or ‘second-strike’, capability to reinforce the credibility of it as a nuclear-armed stat without which capability, nuclear-armed adversaries may be tempted to launch a first strike.
As with all relatively small nuclear forces, each individual weapon becomes more valuable and thus needs to be protected. North Korea relies on dispersal and camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD) to minimise the risk that these assets could be targeted in a pre-emptive attack. The Sinpo-class SSBA has every appearance of being an experimental boat intended to facilitate the design and testing of the Pukgeukseong 1 SLBM and serving as a test bed for technologies to be incorporated into a new class of SSB in the future but should not be taken lightly by the South Korea and its allies.

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