For Korea, the nuclear program has been a point of pride.
In 1990, the North visited a Kim Jong-il speech in Japan, which showed him describing Korea’s atomic energy program as “our greatest achievement.”
“He said about Korea, ‘We have reached the level of a developed country. And we can become an atomic power. … That would be a moral value.’”
Yonhap News Agency
At the time, the North Koreans were still trying to recover from a crippling famine in the 1990s that had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Back then, Korea had eight reactors in operation, with a ninth under construction, according to a 2010 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet Korea’s nuclear industry was hardly on par with other countries in terms of overall technology, design, and resources. Some of the reactors lacked safety features such as operating systems.
South Korea’s energy authorities have pointed to its own experience in making safe nuclear reactors as the basis for developing the country’s nuclear sector. Its four oldest reactors only had a pressurized water reactor design and uranium enrichment facilities.
When it began its nuclear-powered submarine program in the 1960s, South Korea made its first nuclear-powered submarine, which was the nuclear-powered South Korean Blue Bird, and a diesel-electric submarine, which was also nuclear powered. It also built the KDX-III type destroyer, which uses auxiliary nuclear power to start up its propulsion engines. The KDX-III is considered Korea’s most powerful ship.
Sang-Il Handong Nuclear Power Plant
The Blue Bird submarine launched in 1967. Photograph: Geoffrey Lean
South Korea has long wanted to become a nuclear-powered submarine power. In the late 1970s, the Hwang Gwang-dong class submarine was designed. South Korea had already amassed more than 250 submarines at the time. While the submarine was never finished, it established a new standard for sustainable submarine power in the region.
“During the 1980s and early 1990s, South Korea had South Korean submarines that were capable of surviving under extreme environmental conditions and could operate freely in various waters, and they were conventional, diesel-electric submarines,” said Steven Maness, a researcher at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit organization focused on reducing the spread of nuclear weapons. “There were near misses for Korean submarines operating in disputed waters, and South Korea had another fleet that was on route to the middle of the Indian Ocean [the Arun III-class], but was not completed.”
Around 2001, South Korea had its first domestically produced version of the KDX-III destroyer, dubbed the South Korean KDX-IIIK. It was one of the world’s first with a large diesel-electric propulsion system that provided stable, long-range power.
In recent years, the government has considered building a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium to power its submarines, according to analysis provided by CEISS, a nuclear policy research organization. That project is currently at the feasibility stage.
“If a nuclear reactor is built to provide hydrogen-rich fuel and power the submarines, such fuel can be extracted from reprocessed spent fuel to create plutonium,” Maness said. “This new form of power could not only provide long-range diversification of nuclear energy sources, but allow submarines to serve in difficult maritime environments that conventional vessels cannot operate.”
History of Nuclear Submarines in South Korea
A South Korean submarine at the ‘Blue Cat Boat’ exhibition in Yeoncheon, 70 miles from Seoul, in 1994. Photograph: Agence France-Presse
In 1994, a South Korean submarine was accidentally hit by a visiting North Korean vessel near the disputed sea border between the two countries in the Yellow Sea. The South Korean submarines were damaged, and nine South Korean sailors died.
The incident ended a period of peace in the region, as North Korea removed an artillery attack target one mile from Seoul.
It also led to a closer relationship between the North and the South, and led the South to mount a charm offensive on the North’s leadership, according to Kim Yoo-cheol, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
In August 2000, South Korea and Japan issued a formal apology for the Korean sea disaster. The North also expressed regret for the accident.