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The commissioning ceremony for the South Korean Navy's Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine takes place at a dock on the southern island of Geoje. Photo: Handout

South Korea’s new submarine brings North Korean, Chinese bases within range

  • The South Korean navy has commissioned its first domestically built submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, putting it among a select group of countries
  • The new sub – named the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho after a freedom fighter – gives navy the capability to hit sites in North Korea and (theoretically) missile bases in China
South Korea

The South Korean navy has commissioned its first domestically built submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles in a development that will boost its ability to hunt North Korean boats and mount “surgical strikes” against Pyongyang.

The development of the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho makes South Korea one of just eight countries to have produced an indigenous submarine with ballistic-missile firing capabilities and a capacity of 3,000 tonnes or more.

It is the first of three 3,000-ton-class Changbogo-III Batch-I submarines that South Korea plans to build by 2023 with its own technologies as part of a 3.09 trillion won (US$2.7 billion) project launched in 2007. The country hopes to boost defence exports in future by selling similar submarines to other countries.

The commissioning ceremony for the mid-class diesel submarine, named after a South Korean independence fighter, took place at the Okpo Shipyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering on the southern island of Geoje on Friday.

“The Dosan Ahn Chang-ho will protect our waters by serving as a strategic sword, the mere presence of which will strike fear into the enemy,” Yang Yong-mo, commander of the submarine forces, said at the ceremony.

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The 83.5 metre long by 9.6 metre wide submarine can carry 50 crew and is equipped with six vertical missile launchers. It can operate underwater for 20 days without surfacing, Yonhap news agency said.

The navy said the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho would be deployed by August next year.

It plans to have six such 3,000-tonne class submarines by 2030.

Until now South Korea has been operating 1,200 ton and 1,800 ton submarines it produced under a licence agreement with Germany but these were too small to be equipped with ballistic missiles.

The capability of these smaller submarines to operate as “hunter-killers” against North Korean submarines has also been called into question as their time underwater was limited, defence analysts said.

The commissioning ceremony for the South Korean Navy's Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine takes place at a dock on the southern island of Geoje. Photo: Handout

Northern rival

The nuclear-armed North Korea is reportedly ready to roll out a 3,000 ton submarine that can carry three ballistic missiles. The North is believed to have 70 submarines, most of which are outdated and unfit for operations beyond coastal waters.

“South Korea’s new submarine will greatly enhance the navy’s capability to hunt and kill North Korean submarines as they can stay underwater for many hours and watch enemy submarines’ movements,” defence analyst Lee Il-woo of the Korea Defence Network said.

In case of a war, the submarine would be able to reach North Korea’s northeastern port of Sinpo and attack the submarine base there, he said.

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Yang Uk, also an analyst at the Korea Defence Forum, said the new submarines would enhance the South’s ability to mount “surgical strikes” against Pyongyang and the North’s military sites.

A defence source said the new submarine could theoretically reach military bases in eastern China but played this down saying the liberal President Moon Jae-in’s government was “extremely cautious to avoid irritating China”.

The source said South Korea had successfully test-fired ballistic missiles with a range of 500km from barges and would soon test-fire the missiles from a submarine as well.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Photo: Getty Images

The commissioning of the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho comes as South Korea seeks to take part in a bidding war to supply India with diesel-powered submarines.

South Korea is competing with France, Germany and Russia to supply India a second batch of six submarines worth more than US$7 billion dollars. India is seeking to buy 18 submarines in total; the order for the first batch of six as been awarded to France, the defence industry source said.

South Korea’s arms exports reportedly hit a peak in 2016, amounting to 2.74 trillion won (US$2.34 billion), before falling to 1.7 trillion won in 2017, 2.0 trillion won in 2018 and 1.77 trillion won in 2019.

In the 2015-2019 period, it ranked as the world’s 10th-largest arms exporter, accounting for 2.1 per cent of the world’s total defence exports, an annual government report showed.

South Korea’s push to strengthen defences may trigger reaction from North

According to the Global Defence Market Yearbook 2020 published by the Defence Agency for Technology and Quality, Britain, Iraq and Indonesia were the main buyers of South Korea’s defence products during that period.

The United States remained the top arms exporter, followed by Russia, France, Germany and China, with the five countries accounting for 76 per cent of the world’s defence exports, it said.

Saudi Arabia was the largest arms importer, followed by India, Egypt, Australia and China. The five countries accounted for 36 per cent of all defence imports.