Terence Roehrig is professor of National Security Affairs and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy welcomes visitors to its website with the headline, “To the Sea, To the World.” Over the past two decades, South Korea has been building an ocean-going, blue water navy that is capable of extended operations in waters beyond the peninsula. After the sinking of the Cheonan, the Navy scaled back plans to build a blue water navy to focus attention on more immediate defense needs around the peninsula. Last week, the ROK Navy announced a plan to resume the expansion of its blue water fleet with a new line of submarines, more Aegis-class destroyers, and twenty frigates.
One of South Korea’s successful uses of its blue water capability has been its participation in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In spring 2009, Seoul sent the Cheonghae unit consisting of one DDH-II destroyer, a Lynx helicopter, and a team of 30 Navy SEALS to join Counter Task Force (CTF)-151, a group of 25 countries that patrols the waters in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. For over three years, the Cheonghae unit has been escorting ROK commercial vessels and those of other countries and when necessary, conducting operations to foil pirate attacks and rescue seized vessels. The most high profile of these efforts was freeing the South Korean ship Samho Jewelry in January 2011.
South Korea’s participation in CTF-151 has been important for several reasons. First, the operation protects the country’s extensive commercial interests and its citizens who work on these ships. Second, as a rising middle power that is heavily dependent on ocean-borne commerce,South Korea fulfills its responsibility to aid in protecting the global maritime commons. These efforts, in turn, provide an important boost to Seoul’s standing as an able provider of security in the international environment. Finally, CTF-151 has also given South Korea the opportunity to share the operational experience it has accumulated over the years with other navies while also gaining experience from its participation in multilateral operations. CTF-151 has acknowledged South Korean proficiency by asking Seoul on two occasions to serve as overall commander of the task force. All of this comes at a bargain cost–South Korea’s CTF-151 operations budget is only about one-tenth of one percent of the country’s annual defense budget.
South Korea’s participation is one of many important contributions the country is making to global peace and stability as outlined in the CFR’s new e-book, Global Korea. Joining CTF-151 would not have been possible without a modern, blue-water navy. South Korea must continue to pay close attention to coastal defense and the North Korean threat. Yet, with South Korea’s growing power and influence comes a responsibility to contribute to multilateral actions for maintaining international security. The book The U.S.-South Korea Alliance includes a chapter describing South Korea’s naval development and implications for the U.S.-ROK alliance. Participation in CTF-151 is one measure that demonstrates South Korea’s increasing naval capability and interest in playing an important role in global security.
The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense or the Navy.