Monday, 26 November 2012

South Korea's changing maritime environment

For a distance nudging 10,000km, last week’s flying visit to Auckland by a pair of South Korean warships was an impressive display of maritime power.

Sending the two ships to Auckland to commemorate New Zealand’s participation in defending South Korea during the tenser periods of the Korean War was brave. After all, it must be remembered that the Korean War is still officially a reality.

A corvette just like the one in Auckland was sunk in 2011 by a suspected North Korean torpedo or mine. The perpetually fragile peace is bound by hundreds of thousands of troops peering intimidatingly across a de-militarised zone at each other.

What Seoul is displaying with the friendly dispatch of warships is increasing comfortability with their domestic situation. The country has enjoyed almost 50 years of one East Asia’s most solidly performing economies and the creation of a strong navy reflects a desire to independently secure critical trading routes.  

South Korea still relies heavily on the protection from the U.S. Navy but is shifting from under that umbrella, a process Washington approves of. No longer is South Korea simply a place to house American troops, it has become a fully-fledged partner to the world’s predominant power. This responsibility has arrived at a time of both threat and opportunity.

In the coming decades, power in East Asia will increasingly come from the sea, rather than on land. Perhaps the New Zealand visit is a little too far from South Korea’s immediate maritime sphere, but it exposes a new geopolitical imperative for Seoul. Especially as the North Korean regime slumps further into existential despair.

Seoul’s great northern rival of Pyongyang is still their number one priority. An enormous concentration of North Korean artillery is within range of Seoul. So much ordinance could be called down on the city within moments that Pyongyang’s real nuclear deterrent is their conventional forces.

However, as political analyst Robert D. Kaplan predicts, the existence of the hermetic state may not perpetuate indefinitely. With a leader in his mid-20s, albeit American educated, and an almost total control over information, the regime is expected to face significant hurdles in the short to medium term.

A begrudging China still exasperatedly clutches the North Korean leash. However, even Beijing is not about to devote unlimited funds on a friendly regime with a clear shelf-life. Mr Kaplan highlights what he calls the “mother of all humanitarian interventions” when, not if, the North’s regime collapses.

South Korea’s 50 million population and economy 37 times as large as the North’s would struggle to absorb a starving, poor, and illiterate flood of humanity pouring from the above the 38th parallel. Not to mention the burden suddenly hefted upon China, the United States, and Japan as they each contend with the new geopolitical reality.

Ultimately, this remains in the hypothetical future for South Korea. Whether that future dawns soon or tarries, Seoul cannot constantly focus on their land situation. The changing maritime environment is much more pressing in the near term.

South Korea has been called an “island” nation, isolated as it is between the two great powers of China and Japan. Seoul’s success as the economic heart of East Asia balances a competitive yet cooperative relationship with the two neighbouring titans.

South Korea’s convenient geographic position serves as a natural mediation for trade between Beijing and Tokyo. South Korean electronics and shipping are some of the most successful, and cheap, in the world. To continue this trading upper hand, Seoul has identified the security of resources and raw materials as a fundamental priority.

As so deftly displayed by their distance of travel to Auckland, the South Korean navy is growing extraordinarily competent. Few countries have the resources to deploy ships so far, especially when officially at war.

Construction of a navy is inevitable for a strong South Korea. Yet their ability to influence and project power beyond their immediate maritime sphere will be limited. The political situation in both Beijing and Tokyo will largely dictate how much influence Seoul will have in East Asia.

But nowhere is politically more changeable than East Asia, and Seoul is becoming well prepared militarily and diplomatically to weather any drastic sea-change.

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