Larger Zone: A South Korean F-15K fighter jet flies during an air show in October. South Korea plans to expand its air defense identification zone this week after China expanded its zone last month. (JUNG YEON-JE/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
SEOUL — South Korea is announcing next week that it will extend its air defense identification zone in response to China’s declaration of a new air defense zone overlapping the country’s southern islands and underwater rock.
President Park Geun-hye held talks Dec. 6 with US Vice President Joe Biden here to discuss the matter.
According to the presidential office, Biden, who had received no concession from China on its new air defense zone, appreciates Seoul’s plan to expand its air defense zone, drawn in 1951 by the UN Command in the middle of the Korean War.
“The two sides agreed to continue to discuss the matter,” Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se said after the meeting.
In a speech at Yonsei University here, Biden reiterated the US government doesn’t recognize China’s unilateral move announced Nov. 23.
“We do not recognize the zone,” Biden told students. “It will have no effect on American operations.”
He called on South Korea, China and Japan to “lower the temperature” to resolve the issue. “The possibility of miscalculation, a mistake, is real,” he said.
Right after the Park-Biden meeting, presidential National Security Chief Kim Jang-soo convened a meeting of security-related ministers to finalize South Korea’s zone expansion, according to the presidential office.
The ministers agreed to expand the zone to include the southern islands of Marado and Hongdo, as well as the Ieodo Ocean Research Station. The station is built on top of a submerged rock formation within the overlapping exclusive economic zone of South Korea and China. The new Chinese air defense zone covers Ieodo, which is effectively controlled by South Korea.
“The new [zone] has been conceptually finalized,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “The new air boundary is likely to be extended as far south as 100 kilometers from Ieodo, so as to make it coincide with South Korea’s flight information region designated by the International Civil Aviation Organization.”
China expressed regret. Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Seoul’s zone expansions should be in line with international law and convention, saying Beijing will consult with Seoul over the issue.
Security experts here offered mixed responses to the expansion.
Yang Wook, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, urged the government not to take an emotional action.
“We should come up with a strategy in a more careful and measured way,” he said. “It is not smart to hastily bring in a measure to handle the hot-button issue.”
Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said, “As China takes toll on South Korea, we have no option but to declare our expanded air zone.
“A lukewarm response could send a signal that we may make a concession on our own territory,” he added.
Amid heightened tension triggered by China’s new air defense zone, the navies of South Korea, the US and Britain plan to carry out maritime exercises in the southern waters off the Korean Peninsula.
The two-day exercise is set to take place Dec. 8-9 and mobilize a South Korean Aegis destroyer, the US Navy cruiser Shiloh and a Royal NavyDaring-class destroyer.
“This is an exceptional opportunity to bring together three navies that have historically worked very closely together as allies and close friends,” said Rear Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of US Naval Forces Korea. “This exercise provides our navies a chance to work together and learn from each other, so we may continue to fulfill our common interests in preserving a safe and secure maritime environment.”
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) is set to approve a plan to build at least three more Aegis destroyers to better cope with potential conflicts with North Korea, as well as neighboring countries.
“The plan to launch more Aegis ships is scheduled to get approval during a JCS top decision-making conference on Dec. 22,” a JCS spokesman said.
The South Korean Navy has three 7,600-ton KDX-III Aegis destroyers. The KDX-III ship is equipped with the latest phased array radar and other state-of-the-art sensors that can deal with all kinds of air, surface and submerged threats, Navy officials said. ■