(News Focus) S. Korea strives in naval build-up following Cheonan sinking
By Kim Eun-jung
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea, March 23 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean Navy has beefed up the combat capabilities of its warships to counter rising threats from North Korea in the wake of a deadly torpedo attack that sank a corvette four years ago, military officials said Sunday.
The 1,200-ton navy ship called the Cheonan exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea on the night of March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors. A South Korean-led international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed the ship, though Pyongyang denied its involvement.
The deadly incident made South Koreans realize the dangers of North Korean attacks, especially after the North shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010, killing two Marines and two civilians.
The Research Institute for National Security Affairs at Korea National Defense University pointed to a potential North Korean provocation near the western maritime border as one of the three biggest security threats to South Korea this year.
The maritime border, called the Northern Limit Line, is a flash point between the two Koreas where two deadly skirmishes took place -- once in 1999, and again in 2002.
"North Korea may launch an unprovoked attack on the South Korean warship south of the NLL to seek revenge for the naval clashes, making the NLL a hot issue," the institute said in a recent security report.
In response to the escalating risk of North Korean provocations, South Korea has upgraded its defense capacities along the western sea border, deploying more submarines and anti-torpedo weapons as well as an increased number of artillery shells on front-line islands.
"Following the Cheonan incident, the South Korean Navy has deployed the advanced escort vessels and guided-missile high-speed ships and additionally acquired maritime patrol aircraft for improved combat capabilities," R. Adm. Choi Yang-sun, who oversees the Navy's weapons program, told reporters during his visit to the Second Fleet Headquarters in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
In the past years, South Korea has armed its warships and submarines with cruise missiles that have a range of over 1,000 kilometer and additionally deployed 2,300-ton naval escort ships.
About 20 more naval ships will replace the existing fleet of patrol ships in the next 10 years, while 15 guided-missile destroyers with advanced sonar systems capable of detecting submarines have been deployed in the east and western seas.
In response, the North has increased the operations of its submarine fleets and the training of coastal artillery units, conducting amphibious landing operations targeting the South in the past years.
Most recently, North Korea has been building a new high-speed, wave piercing craft called Very Slender Vessel (VSV), which Seoul officials believe is aimed at infiltrating the inter-Korean sea boundary to quickly occupy South Korean border islands in case of war.
The communist state has already deployed about 70 air-cushion vehicles on its west coast and 60 of the amphibious vehicles in the east at its four hovercraft bases.
Pyongyang has also put in place 200-ton new combatant ships with guns of longer ranges, while adding one or two submarine midgets every year to the fleet of 70 submarines.
The need to strengthen naval capabilities has grown even larger in light of China's increasing assertiveness and Japan's military buildup, as they are locked in an ongoing territorial conflict over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
In response to the potential arms race in Northeast Asia, Seoul's defense ministry recently announced plans to expand naval task groups with Aegis destroyers in the next decade.
South Korea currently operates one naval task group with three Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyers. Envisaging the deployment of three more 7,400-ton Aegis destroyers from 2023 to 2027, the defense reform plan for 2014-2030 calls for the reorganization of naval task groups.
Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korea's Navy on Wednesday carried out a large-scale drill in waters off the Yellow Sea under a scenario in which a North Korean submarine crosses the maritime border.
The 7,700-ton Aegis destroyer, King Sejong the Great, destroyers and patrol escort ship as well as seven other naval vessels and a Lynx helicopter participated in the exercise.
The naval drill occurred during a time of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang fired off several missiles and rockets from its eastern coast between late February and early March in a show of force against ongoing joint military drills by South Korea and the U.S.