During today’s national assembly confirmation hearing for Joint Chief of Staffs, a question was asked by Sung Il-Jong, a member of the ruling party PPP (People Power Party) regarding the usefulness of nuclear submarines.
“While those capabilities are needed, there are clear limitations as to what South Korea can do due to current ROK-US nuclear agreement restricts the use of nuclear materials in military use.”
Admiral Kim Myung-soo, the Nominee for the ROK Joint Chief of Staffs
While South Korea’s move to obtain SSN capabilities is nothing new, it is notable for a top-tier admiral to officially discuss the possibility of acquiring SSN as the North’s threat is getting more intense both in quantitative and qualitative ways. Earlier this year, North Korea has revealed a heavily modified Sinpo-class submarine ‘Hero Kim Kun Ok’ (hull number 841) which can launch up to four Pukguksong SLBM (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile) via VLS (Vertical Launching System) installed on the ship.
Since the implication of this comment is huge, Naval News has reached out to multiple defense experts on this particular matter and four have replied as following:
Yulgok Kim, the secretary general of the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy has commented that “Admirals and government officials from the ROK Navy tend to favor Seoul’s nuclear-powered submarines due to its strategic efficiency. Top level’s such awareness would give momentum to future K-SSN project, making the public opinion strongly urge for the revision of the ROK-US nuclear agreement. From a strategic perspective, South Korean nuclear submarines will be a plus that serves good interests to both South Korean and the US, and K-SSN would be a useful asset to counter China and North Korea.”
Professor Jeeyong Kim at the South Korean Naval Academy has argued that the strategic importance of K-SSN is second to none, saying that K-SSN can serve as a deterrent towards China, Russia and North Korea. He stressed that the North would no longer be able to threaten the South in the East Sea once ROK Navy gets a sizable fleet of SSN.
Former Captain Moon Keun-sik, who serves as an adjunct professor at Hanyang University claimed that “North Korea’s ever-expanding nuclear capabilities are posing a direct threat to both South Korea and the United States. Recent polls have shown that the majority of South Korean population now considers having SSN capabilities as vital than optional. Allowing South Korea to develop K-SSN will ultimately benefit the security of the United States.” He also added that “Revision of ROK-US nuclear agreement is needed in order for South Korea to ensure the stable securing of nuclear materials to be used in K-SSN project.”
“K-SSN will allow ROK Navy to track and trace North Korea’s submarine activities for an extended period, without having to resurface to charge batteries.” Former Navy Captain Park Beom-Jin said. He also added that “Technologies and experiences acquired in building K-SSN will function as a cornerstone when ROK decides to build SSBN or SSGN.”
South Korea’s prolonged wish to acquire SSN seems like a long journey ahead. However, multiple admirals and even the minister of defense himself have expressed the need of K-SSN during the previous administration. While some trade-offs might be needed, nuclear submarine’s strategic benefits are incomparable to that of conventional diesel-electric ones.
“It is also worth mentioning that once South Korea starts developing its own SSN, France will be its natural partner as the United States refuses to give South Korea any sort of nuclear capabilities as written in the ROK-US Nuclear Agreement. Even after the revision of this agreement, the US is unlikely to allow selling nuclear fuels to South Korea as it views South Korea having nuclear capabilities as a breakdown of geopolitical balance in the Northeast Asia region.”
France is already assisting Brazil with its own submarine programs including its SSN program.
It still remains a question for South Korea to find a long-term nuclear fuel supplier for its potential K-SSN fleet, but even with those challenges faced, South Korea should pursue its long-held dream of acquiring SSN fleet as there is no better way of monitoring and deterring North Korea’s suspicious submarine activities than deploying Korea’s own nuclear submarines.