The Buzz

A Glimpse into South Korea’s New Naval Base on Jeju Island

Four years ago I wrote about South Korea’s strategically far-sighted but locally controversial plans to construct a new naval base on Jeju island. After speaking at last week’s Jeju Forum I couldn’t resist an invitation from the Korean Institute for Maritime Strategy to slip away between panel discussions to attend a briefing at the newly opened facility.

The major locational advantage of the base for South Korea, given its hemmed-in geography, is that it faces onto the relatively open waters of the East China Sea. The ROK Navy (ROKN) has existing facilities at Busan and Jinhae, and previously operated a small facility on Jeju’s northern coast. But the much larger, south-facing base offers unobstructed access to South Korea’s major sea lines of communication passing through the western Pacific.

Seoul’s commitment to invest in a major new base on South Korea’s southernmost extent of territory suggests a broader significance: a recognition that the country needs to broaden its strategic horizons beyond the ever-present threat from the North. This is something that deserves encouragement, given South Korea’s unrealized potential as a middle power with global maritime interests, and a stake in freedom of navigation very similar to Japan.

The ROKN has long nurtured ambitions to develop into an ocean-going 'blue-water' force. It has taken considerable strides towards this goal, acquiring an impressive, domestically-built force structure, while playing second or third fiddle within a defense force configured to deter an adversary who is still primarily land-based (but moving increasingly into hybrid and asymmetrical dimensions of warfare).

In 2010, the loss of a South Korean corvette with 46 sailors in coastal waters to a suspected North Korean torpedo attack was a brutal reality check for the ROKN’s strategic ambitions. Against such real-world threats, covering coastal contingencies and blue-water operations in parallel is a stretch for a middle-sized navy like South Korea’s.

As if these challenges were not enough, Seoul’s plans to develop a strategic base capable of serving as a blue-water springboard encountered resistance from some of Jeju’s inhabitants, channeling a strong anti-military strain in the island’s identity. Protests during the long construction phase drove up costs, forcing the ROKN to compromise on their original plans. The need to demonstrate economic value to the island has additionally meant re-designating the naval base as a joint civil-military facility. The current plan is to allow cruise ships to dock in the purpose-built naval harbour, which is large enough to dock a flotilla of up to 30 warships. How such an awkward arrangement would work in practice is unclear, and it may be that the dual-use plan for passenger ships is quietly dropped.

Despite ongoing small-scale protests against the base, Jeju’s new naval facility was finally opened in December 2015. However, Maritime Task Flotilla 7 (MTF-7) was set up significantly earlier, in 2011, as a new command tailored for the new base. Forces assigned to MTF-7, which has its headquarters on Jeju, include three Aegis air warfare destroyers and six KDX-II helicopter destroyers. One or two Jangbogo-class submarines are also deployed forward there. The fact that there are no aviation assets assigned to MTF-7 is arguably one weakness. But aircraft and other naval units based on the Peninsula would potentially be available to augment the flotilla if needed.

Underlining the ROKN’s attachment to the blue water concept, MTF-7 differs from other South Korean military commands in that it has no limitation to its area of operations, which theoretically extend as far as South Korea identifies its maritime interests. MTF-7 has participated in non-combatant evacuation operations from Yemen and Libya, and contributed forces to multinational counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. Closer to home, it has played a role in tracking, detecting and recovering debris from North Korean long-range missile tests, underlining the primary importance of defence across the DMZ – even from the relative distance of Jeju.

Closer to the island, South Korea claims extensive maritime jurisdiction extending into the East China Sea, where its claims overlap with those of China and Japan. Korea has historically sought to chart an independent course as the shrimp figuratively caught between these two whales. The decision to establish a new base and command at Jeju is a nod towards this basic strategic continuity, notwithstanding the unresolved problem of national unification.