SEOUL • South Korea's navy said in a surprise announcement yesterday that it is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, a move that would change the balance of power in North-east Asia and likely upset several of its neighbours.
Seoul is surrounded by three nuclear powers - China, Russia and North Korea, which invaded its neighbour in 1950 - while South Korea and neighbour Japan, both of them US allies but with difficult relations between them, rely on Washington's nuclear umbrella.
Pyongyang last week tested what it said was a submarine-launched ballistic missile, although the US said it seemed to have been fired from a "sea-based platform".
A proven submarine-based missile capability would take the North's arsenal to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a second-strike capability in the event of an attack on its military bases.
In a report submitted to Parliament, the South Korean navy said it had set up a task force headed by a commander-level official to examine procuring nuclear-powered submarines in the long term, said the South's Yonhap news agency.
It appears to be the first time Seoul has publicly spoken of developing nuclear submarines, which were not mentioned in its most recent defence White Paper. The document, released in January, said the South had 10 conventional diesel-powered submarines, compared with 70 for the North.
According to the South Korean media, the navy said it was "a matter to be determined as a national policy in consultation with the Defence Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff" - with no mention of the US.
Seoul is in a security alliance with the US, but US President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded it pay more towards the cost of stationing US troops in South Korea, while his current emollient approach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has raised eyebrows in the South.
South Korean navy chief Sim Seung-seob told MPs that nuclear-powered submarines capable of longer underwater operations than conventional boats would be "most effective in finding and destroying North Korean submarines equipped with submarine-launched ballistic missiles", according to Yonhap. The military has "recognised their necessity and effectiveness", he added.
According to Seoul's 2018 defence White Paper, the US has 14 nuclear submarines, ahead of Russia on 13, and China on four.
South Korea has 600,000 troops facing the North's nearly 1.3 million-strong military, the document said, while analysts estimate Pyongyang has between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads.