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Navigating Troubled Waters: Former Pentagon Official Warns South Korea on Nuclear Submarine Pursuit


In a media contribution essay published on November 24, a former official from the Pentagon argued against the concept of South Korea acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). The individual cited high costs, operational realities, and other problems as reasons for their opposition.

Dov S. Zakheim,  undersecretary of defence from 2001 to 2004, presented the argument in an article published by The Hill, a media organisation based in the United States. In the article, he pointed out an ongoing debate in South Korea regarding whether or not the country should have Social Security numbers.

The argument has gained pace in recent years due to North Korea’s increased efforts to strengthen its naval capabilities. These efforts include the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and underwater attack drones. On the other hand, a nuclear treaty between Seoul and Washington places restrictions on the use of nuclear materials for military purposes.

The foundation of the Nuclear Consultative Group and the United States vow for an enhanced American nuclear presence around the Korean Peninsula are included in the agreement that President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Joe Biden of the United States struck in April, according to Zakheim. This agreement included the establishment of the Nuclear Consultative Group.

North Korean tactical nuclear attack submarine No. 841, Hero Kim Kun Ok
North Korean tactical nuclear attack submarine No. 841, Hero Kim Kun Ok. Image: KCNA

The spirit of the Biden-Yoon agreement would be undermined, and a serious split between the two countries would be created if South Korea attempted to evade its long-standing commitment to Washington to concentrate all of its nuclear-related efforts solely for civilian purposes, as he stated in the piece. He wrote that the North Koreans would be the only ones to benefit from such a split.

According to him, if Seoul were to establish a new submarine programme, it would be necessary for the city to construct a minimum of three vessels to guarantee that at least one boat would remain stationed at all times. After considering the logistics support, the cost of three submarines is expected to be greater than ten billion dollars in the United States.

According to him, for South Korea to field a credible fleet, it would be necessary for the country to guarantee that two submarines are always on station. This would mean that the total number of boats that would need to be acquired and the expenses associated with those boats would need to be doubled. According to him, it is not evident that the government can increase the already large levels of defence spending by tens of billions of dollars.

As an additional point of interest, Zakheim provided a list of “excellent” operational reasons why Seoul should continue to acquire conventional submarines.

According to him, the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula are relatively shallow, making it conducive to using silent conventional submarines.

During a confirmation hearing last week, the Chairman-nominee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Kim Myung-soo, observed the “adequate” value of nuclear-powered submarines. However, he emphasised the importance of considering the matter “seriously.”

Additionally, Zakheim serves as the vice chairman of the board of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in addition to his current position as a senior adviser at CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies).

Frontier India News Network
Frontier India News Networkhttps://frontierindia.com/briefs
Frontier India News Network is the in-house news collection and distribution agency.


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