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Plan for nuclear submarines gains traction

Sept 21,2017
President Moon Jae-in’s ambition to build nuclear-powered submarines gained momentum Wednesday, despite the Blue House denying that there was an agreement with the United States on the issue.

Quoting multiple senior government officials, the JoongAng Ilbo published an exclusive report earlier in the morning saying Seoul and Washington have agreed in principle that South Korea will build nuclear-powered submarines. Moon would bring the news home from his New York trip this week, one of the sources said.

“Until now, the two countries had close consultations on the issue,” another senior official was quoted as saying. “The discussion was already over among the officials working on the issue. The agreement can be made public at an appropriate time after Moon meets with U.S. President Donald Trump during the UN trip.”

“South Korea’s procurement of nuclear-powered submarines is a key mission of Moon’s New York trip,” he continued. “None of his predecessors accomplished it, but Moon has been able to persuade the U.S. government.”

The Blue House said Wednesday that the report is not entirely true. “Some media reports about an agreement between Seoul and Washington on South Korea’s procurement of nuclear-submarines are different from facts,” Yoon Young-chan, senior presidential press secretary, said. “Until now, no agreement has been reached between the two countries.”

The statement, however, did not say whether there were discussions or not.

Moon is scheduled to have a bilateral summit with Trump on Thursday. A presidential aide was quoted by local media saying there is no plan to address the submarine issue at the summit.

Chung Ui-yong, head of the National Security Office of the Blue House, left for the United States on Wednesday to set the agenda for the summit. Moon left for New York on Monday, but Chung stayed behind. Moon has long promoted the need to bolster the country’s military capabilities against growing asymmetrical threats from the North. In a phone call with Trump on Aug. 7, Moon specifically mentioned the need for South Korea to own nuclear-powered submarines and build more powerful ballistic missiles.

It appeared that Moon wants to deter the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles with nuclear submarines while countering the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile technology with more powerful South Korean missiles. Moon and Trump already agreed to lift payload limits on South Korean missiles to counter the North’s escalating threats.

A submarine powered by a nuclear reactor allows the vessel to operate underwater for practically an unlimited period of time. Conventional submarines, typically diesel-electric-powered watercrafts, need to refuel and recharge, making them more detectable.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, which Moon served as a senior presidential aide, planned to build and deploy three 4,000-ton nuclear submarines by 2020. The plan was secretly initiated in 2003 and later canceled after media reports. Current Defense Minister Song Young-moo participated in the project while serving in the Navy.

Seoul was reluctant to develop nuclear-powered submarines due to Washington’s disapproval. Sources, however, told the JoongAng Ilbo that the latest provocations by the North led Washington to allow Seoul’s plan.

Uranium enrichment technology is a key to building nuclear-powered submarines. The JoongAng Ilbo reported that a vice foreign minister from the Moon government and a deputy head of the U.S. Department of Energy will hold a high-level committee meeting to discuss U.S. supplies of enriched uranium for nuclear submarines.

Under the current Korea-U.S. agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation, South Korea is prohibited from enriching uranium or using enriched uranium for military purposes but allowed to purchase low-enriched reactor-grade uranium for power generation. In contrast, highly-enriched uranium is the source of nuclear weapons.

“The United States banned Korea from building nuclear arms, but it didn’t prohibit Korea from nuclear power generation and nuclear-powered military vessels,” said Shin Beom-chul, professor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Even before he took office, Moon stressed the country’s need to build nuclear-powered submarines. During a presidential debate in April, Moon said he would seek revision of the nuclear agreement with the United States, if he won the election, to push the submarine project.

Defense Minister Song has also advocated the need to build nuclear-powered submarines since July. Experts said nuclear-powered submarines are particularly crucial to counter the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missile technology. The North successfully launched a ballistic missile from a 2,200-ton submarine on April 23, 2016. The North currently operates about 70 submarines and is expanding their sizes to carry more missiles.

“Because they fire ballistic missiles secretly from underwater, it is hard to detect the signs of launch or their locations,” said Kwon Yong-soo, a former professor at the Korea National Defense University. “As of now, we don’t have means to intercept them.”

Moon Geun-sik, a former South Korean Navy captain who led the Roh administration’s nuclear submarine project, said nuclear-powered submarines are perhaps the only effective deterrence of submarine-launched missiles. “Our submarines should track down enemy submarines from the moment they start sailing and sink them when there is a sign of missile launch,” he said. “That is probably the best option.”

According to Moon, nuclear submarines can operate underwater as long as they have food supplies. The South Korean Navy’s diesel-electric submarines, however, need to surface to recharge. A 1,200-ton Chang Bogo-class submarine needs to surface at least once a day. The larger 1,800-ton submarines can stay underwater for up to two weeks.

The Roh administration completed the basic designs for nuclear submarines, Moon said. It even planned to purchase uranium from Russia or France if the United States opposed.

Moon said it will take no more than five years for the country to build nuclear subs. “The small-sized SMART [System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor], developed by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, can be downsized further to power a submarine,” said Moon. “If this is pushed forward as a state project, we can sail a nuclear submarine within five years.”

As of now, only six countries - the United States, Russia, England, France, China and India - operate nuclear-powered submarines. They are all nuclear-armed states.

China is destined to protest South Korea’s plan to build nuclear submarines. “The Navy will likely arm the nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles,” said Kim Jin-hyung, who formerly headed the Joint Chief of Staff’s strategic and planning department. “China will hate them operating in the Yellow Sea.”

BY WIE MOON-HEE, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]