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(News Focus) S. Korea weighs merits, challenges of nuclear-powered subs

2016/08/29 19:00

By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, Aug. 29 (Yonhap) -- Amid growing calls to introduce a nuclear-powered submarine to counter North Korea's evolving underwater threats, South Korea's defense ministry remained cautious Monday, weighing both the merits and challenges of the weapons system.

Following Pyongyang's test-launch last week of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), some ruling party officials and military experts have floated the idea of bolstering South Korea's underwater fleet with a vessel powered by nuclear fuel which has much better endurance compared to conventional diesel-electric boats.

The Ministry of National Defense for its part appeared reluctant to publicly discuss the idea, apparently believing it could create a misleading image of South Korea eyeing its own nuclear armaments and cause needless security concerns to neighboring countries, observers said.

"It is not a simple matter, as the issue of building a nuclear-powered submarine should be weighed in connection with our denuclearization principle," a military official said, declining to be identified.

This undated Yonhap News TV image shows a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the scene of a North Korean nuclear facility being destroyed, with flags of South Korea and the U.S. placed between the two images. (Yonhap) This undated Yonhap News TV image shows a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the scene of a North Korean nuclear facility being destroyed, with flags of South Korea and the U.S. placed between the two images. (Yonhap)

The defense ministry said Monday it will beef up the capability of South Korean submarines as a deterrent against the North's ever-growing missile threats. But it said "no decision has been made yet to build a nuclear-powered vessel."

   On the same day, Defense Minister Han Min-koo told lawmakers that Pyongyang could deploy SLBMs as early as this year though it will take one to three years before the North fully develops SLBMs and is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

"As there are growing voices for nuclear submarines to better defend ourselves, the ministry will take a look at it to see if it can be effectively deployed (to counter the enemy's attacks)," Han said, without elaborating.

Earlier in the day, President Park Geun-hye urged the military be fully prepared for any types of provocations by the North and to be ready to counter possible attacks.

The authorities expected North Korea will make further SLBM tests for early deployment and even try to build a nuclear-powered submarine in the coming years.

This photo, taken at the National Assembly on Aug. 29, 2016, shows Defense Minister Han Min-koo answering questions from lawmakers about the military's preparedness against North Korea's growing missile threats. (Yonhap) This photo, taken at the National Assembly on Aug. 29, 2016, shows Defense Minister Han Min-koo answering questions from lawmakers about the military's preparedness against North Korea's growing missile threats. (Yonhap)

Given such changes taking place, the ministry didn't rule out the possibility of a nuclear-powered submarine amid escalating threats from the North. So its responses can be interpreted as it considering the option if the North's nuclear sabre-rattling intensifies.

A group of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party said in a statement that South Korea's military should move to deal effectively with North Korea's SLBM threat by deploying submarines with nuclear propulsion that can better detect and attack North Korean vessels.

"South Korea, surrounded by seas on three sides, is vulnerable to North Korea's SLBM threats. Deployment of nuclear-powered submarines is needed to counter such provocations," Rep. Won Yoo-chul, who represents the group, said.

Opposition parties unusually joined the ruling party to ask the defense ministry to clarify if the country has the willingness and the technology to build a nuclear submarine.

"As conventional diesel-electric submarines are less capable in detecting an SLBM-mounted submarine, it makes sense to push forward a nuclear submarine," Rep. Chin Young from the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea said.

In this photo taken on Aug. 4, 2016, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party discusses ways to counter growing North Korean threats at a policy meeting in the National Assembly. (Yonhap) In this photo taken on Aug. 4, 2016, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party discusses ways to counter growing North Korean threats at a policy meeting in the National Assembly. (Yonhap)

Experts on North Korean issues also expressed similar views.

Yang Wook, a fellow of the Korea Defense and Security Forum (KODEF), said building a nuclear-powered submarine is the only way to counter an SLBM from the North, because such boats can track and monitor the North's SLBM-mounted submarines with less chance of being detected themselves.

"A nuclear-powered submarine is not a nuclear weapon but a nuclear-powered vessel. So the U.S. has no reason to object if we decide to build a nuclear submarine for self-defense reasons," Yang said.

His view was echoed by other missile experts. They also said as it takes several years to build a nuclear submarine, the U.S. needs to deploy its nuclear submarines near the Korean peninsula to help detect SLBMs from the North during the time.

In its latest provocations, Pyongyang test-fired an SLBM near its eastern port city of Sinpo on Wednesday. The missile flew some 500 kilometers and fell into waters 80 km inside Japan's air defense identification zone.

Last week's launch, the third since April, is seen as a success, whereas a series of past launches ended in failure or were only partially successful.

Experts say the North's push for an underwater weapons system poses a grave security threat to South Korea and the U.S., as an SLBM is hard to detect before it emerges from the water.

Along with nuclear-capable bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, SLBMs complete a strategic nuclear arsenal, which experts call the "nuclear triad."

   kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr

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