A South Korean Aircraft Carrier Won’t Scare North Korea, But Sadly Nukes Might

A recent article reports that South Korea, where I have lived more than twenty years, is investigating the possibility of building a 50,000 ton aircraft carrier to counter North Korean military provocations. According to Mike Yeo, “South Korea’s Defense Ministry… confirmed it still wants to develop an aircraft carrier. The local SBS news outlet reported that the ministry responded to inquiries from a parliamentarian that it will soon start feasibility studies into the prospects of building a 50,000-ton design. The ministry had told Jung Sung-ho, who sits on the parliament’s National Defense Committee, that it would also be possible to develop a carrierborne variant of the KF-21 fighter, locally made by Korean Aerospace Industries, within a decade if the government allocates sufficient funding.”

If the South Koreans proceed, I would suggest it would be a waste of money. After all, North Korea was not intimidated by larger American aircraft carriers during the war, and shows no fear for the even larger US ships currently in the fleet. The reason for their brazen lack of concern about the USN and its supercarriers also dates back to The Pueblo Incident in 1968, in which a USN spy ship was captured by North Korea, the USN did not retaliate, and although the crew was allowed to return to the US, the ship remains as a war trophy in North Korea. This incident was discussed in my 2007 book on the USN, Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, as were the weaknesses of American supercarrriers to submarine attacks. So if American carriers can’t rattle the North Koreans, what hope does a much smaller South Korean carrier have?

On the other hand, if South Korea were to build its own nuclear deterrent, that might give the North Koreans reason to be less bellicose. With North Koreans firing ballistic and cruise missiles into the sea on a regular basis, and no significant response from Seoul or Washington, this country could be headed for trouble. Decades ago the US withdrew its nukes from South Korea, and many here feel that the best thing to do is to develop their own. An article in The Diplomat published a few months ago reported that: “The growing North Korean nuclear threat is pushing a change in both South Korean public opinion as well as among the political class. According to a media report, opinion surveys from recent years have seen a shift wherein ‘a majority of South Koreans supported the United States redeploying nuclear weapons to the South or the country’s building an arsenal of its own.’ Yoon’s own political party has been wanting South Korea ‘to reconsider a nuclear option.’ Between 2021 and 2022, there was a spike in the percentage of respondents supporting South Korea’s pursuit of its own nuclear weapons program, with that support reaching 55.5 percent.”

As a resident, I would feel much more secure with the nation having a domestic nuclear deterrent, despite the political costs and possible condemnation from abroad, than a vulnerable first-generation aircraft carrier. South Korea is technologically much more advanced than North Korea, and with US help, could conceivably build more advanced and reliable nuclear weapons than North Korea could ever dream of. Ironically, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, but here there seems to be little choice, especially with the Korean public becoming increasingly concerned that Washington might not protect them. That would probably make a much better investment than an aircraft carrier and more F-35s.


Mike Yeo, “South Korea clears multibillion-dollar buy of more F-35s, SM-6 missile” Defense News, March 15, 2023.

Roger Thompson, Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture (p. 69). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Is South Korea Considering Nuclear Weapons?” The Diplomat, January 23, 2023.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.