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Nuclear submarine issue surfaces

Military admits for first time that a task force is studying idea
Oct 11,2019
South Korean military officials raised the necessity of arming the nation with nuclear-powered submarines on Thursday during a parliamentary audit, saying it was already running a task force to study the idea.

Adm. Sim Seung-seob, operations chief of the South Korean Navy, told lawmakers of the parliamentary National Defense Committee at Navy headquarters in Gyeryong, South Chungcheong, that the Navy thinks the country needs nuclear-powered submarines as a way to “simultaneously contain North Korea and [other] neighboring countries.”

When a lawmaker asked about the Navy’s precise stance on the issue of South Korea having nuclear-powered submarines, Sim replied he could only provide “limited” answers because the military had to decide “after considering various national circumstances,” but added there were “research results” indicating South Korea was definitely in need of them.

Sim said the Navy was running a task force to study Korea’s need for nuclear submarines, the first time the Navy has ever admitted running a task force on the subject. The former Roh Moo-hyun administration secretly initiated a plan in 2003 to build and deploy nuclear submarines, but the plan was later canceled after media reports and Washington’s opposition.

Last week, the North tested what appeared to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the East Sea, stoking fresh fears here as to whether the South was capable of defending itself from possible attacks.

A submarine powered by a nuclear reactor allows the vessel to operate underwater for long periods, as opposed to conventional submarines, which need to surface to refuel, making them more detectable than their nuclear counterparts.

Under the current South-U.S. agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation, Seoul is prohibited from enriching uranium or using enriched uranium for military purposes but is allowed to purchase low-enriched reactor-grade uranium for power generation. Nuclear submarines that use highly-enriched uranium, therefore, are not allowed.

Asked during Thursday’s parliamentary audit whether he thinks a nuclear-powered submarine would be appropriate for countering North Korea’s SLBM, Sim said it would.

“Nuclear-powered submarines are capable of long underwater operations,” he said. The Navy “believes they’re the most effective way to detect an SLBM, track it down and destroy it.”

The Navy said in a report submitted to the committee’s lawmakers that the South Korean military was studying nuclear-powered submarines but pointed out that the issue would ultimately have to be decided “in accordance with national policies.”

Rep. Choi Jae-sung of the ruling Democratic Party said “political and diplomatic efforts” would be required if Seoul were to actually deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, particularly in regard to the South-U.S. nuclear agreement, cooperation with the international society at large and a national consensus.

Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the minor-right Bareunmirae Party said Seoul should first equip itself with small, cheaper unmanned submarines.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]