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Politics Behind Japan-ROK Defense Exchange Agreement; The differences were greater than shared concerns about North Korea

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Defense Minister Minoru Kihara (left) shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Shin Won-sik in Singapore on Saturday.

SINGAPORE – At a meeting of Japanese and South Korean defense ministers held on Saturday, the Japanese and South Korean sides were expected to reach a political settlement to agree to resume bilateral defense exchanges, resolving the issue of left behind a fire control radar from 2018. them.

This is because the two governments placed importance on strengthening their cooperation to deal with North Korea. The task of Tokyo and Seoul in the future will be to restore trust between the members of their armed forces.

“It is important to promote defense cooperation not only between Japan, the United States and South Korea, but also between Japan and South Korea,” Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told his South Korean counterpart Shin Won-sik the start of their talks on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore.

Shin responded that he wanted to have frank discussions on forward-looking security and defense cooperation.

The two defense chiefs then shared a firm handshake. However, preliminary negotiations between defense officials of the two governments had continued until the day of the bilateral talks.

Even after the inauguration of the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who attaches importance to the country’s relations with Japan, Seoul has maintained that the radar incident – in which a South Korean naval vessel misfired its fire control radar on a maritime self-defense radar targeted Force patrol aircraft in December 2018 – never occurred.

Instead, the South Korean Ministry of Defense has repeatedly maintained its argument that the MSDF patrol aircraft conducted a dangerous, threatening low-altitude flight against the South Korean destroyer.

In an attempt to resolve the situation, the Japanese side shifted its tactics to seeking agreement on measures that would be effective in preventing such incidents in the future, rather than disputing the facts. Therefore, the Japanese side insisted on including compliance with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as one of the key pillars of the agreements.

In response, the South Korean side requested that restrictions be included on the permitted distances and heights when aircraft approach ships, to prevent MSDF aircraft from approaching South Korean ships.

The Japanese side did not accept this request and considered it an infringement of freedom of navigation and flight. But the Japanese side took the South Korean side into account and the document on preventing a recurrence explicitly stated that the CUES requires safe distances to be maintained.

Flag of the Rising Sun

One point of contention that emerged in the final stages of the preliminary negotiations was the handling of the SDF’s use of the Rising Sun Flag. The flag is seen by some people in South Korea as “the flag of war crimes.” When the government of then South Korean President Moon Jae-in Japan demanded that the flag not be flown during an international naval review ceremony to be held in South Korea in 2018, the MSDF decided in response not to participate in the ceremony.

This time, the Japanese side tried to get confirmation from South Korea that there would be no problem flying the SDF flag. But the South Koreans hardened their stance and said they would be willing to abandon the agreement, and eventually the Japanese side relented by not including topics related to this issue in the agreements.

Yet the Yoon government allowed an MSDF destroyer to fly the SDF flag when it entered Busan port in May last year before taking part in a multilateral military exercise. This is how Kihara came to the thought: “We believe that the flag of the Self-Defense Force is not an obstacle.”


One reason the two sides have reached a compromise is the growing need for Japan and South Korea to do joint business with North Korea as it strengthens its nuclear and missile capabilities. As cooperation within the framework of Japan, the United States and South Korea has deepened through measures such as immediate sharing of information on missile launches, strengthening security cooperation between Japan and South Korea has become a matter for further strengthening deterrence and response capabilities.

Japan has put energy into defense cooperation with countries such as Australia, India and the Philippines. But even before the radar incident, Japan and South Korea only conducted events such as joint search and rescue exercises. Japan hopes to conduct regular reciprocal visits of uniformed defense officers and other personnel between Tokyo and Seoul, and organize a two-plus-two meeting of foreign chiefs and defense chiefs.

There is some dissatisfaction within the Ministry of Defense and the SDF with the political settlement, which left the issue of the radar steering incident ambiguous. A senior SDF official said, “The Japanese side is not solidly united either,” and acknowledged continued discomfort among SDF officers and personnel. “We should not remain stuck in the past. We have no choice but to deepen our understanding and trust in the other side step by step,” the official added.



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