WHY JAPAN MUST BOLSTER TIES WITH SOUTH KOREA DESPITE OUTSTANDING ISSUES
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will be visiting Japan this week with a resolve to settle a dispute involving Korean workers mobilized to work in wartime Japan that has plunged the bilateral relations to their lowest point since diplomatic normalization in 1965. In October 2018 the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate workers on the grounds that Japan’s mobilization of Koreans was “illegal and inhumane.” (Korea was a Japanese colony at the time.) Japan bitterly objected to the rulings. Yoon, who came to power last May and formed his conservative administration, has proposed a solution under which a South Korean foundation will pay the workers, stressing that South Korea will not demand a new apology or payment from Japan.
Viewed strategically, closer ties among Japan, the US, and South Korea are indispensable amid increasing nuclear threats from China and North Korea. Yoon’s visit is significant in that regard. On the other hand, seemingly too many crucial issues remain pending between Japan and South Korea. As our grand strategy, a more solid unity among Japan, the US, and South Korea and closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea are both important. That said, we cannot allow ourselves to be taken in by South Korea, which desperately wants to restore ties with Japan, while leaving certain issues unresolved. Notably, the biggest stumbling block between our two countries is the “radar lock-on incident.”
In December 2018 a South Korean destroyer directed its fire-control radar at a Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) P-1 patrol aircraft in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Sea of Japan. “It is similar to putting your finger on the trigger and pointing the gun at someone’s head,” explains Kunio Orita, a former Air JSDF general. The lock-on was clearly a hostile act that could have led to a possible crash of the aircraft and the pilot’s death, asserts Orita.
South Korea’s handling of the incident has struck Japan as unpardonable. The official posture of the South Korean government has been to refuse acknowledging the lock-on and claim Japan was not telling the truth. Such a backdrop can hardly make for a relationship of mutual trust between any two countries, especially on the military level.
A worsening security environment surrounding South Korea, due largely to persistent provocations from the North, is the reason that the South wants to speedily mend fences with Japan. Last November, the North declared itself a nuclear-weapon state, passing a new law that enshrines its right to use nukes preemptively and asserts that nukes represent the “dignity…and absolute power of the state.”
On February 18, the North conducted a simulated use of nukes against the US. Two days later, it fired short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, describing the action as nuclear missile firing drills by its Tactical Nuclear Weapons Operation Unit. The North claimed this one was a nuclear exercise targeted at Japan and South Korea.
Assassination Attempt on Kim Jong-un
To counter these dangerous situations created by the North, Yoon vowed in a January 11 address in Seoul: “If North Korea’s nuclear threat grows, South Korea will consider building nuclear weapons of its own.” The Chosun Ilbo, a leading conservative South Korean daily, had this to say in its February 20 editorial entitled South Korea Needs Own Nuclear Arms to Deter North Korea: “The only way to convince North Korea (that it will pay a ‘heavy price’ for its provocation) is for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons. The time is nearing when no other option is viable.”
Against this backdrop, the US Air Force sent its B-1B strategic bombers and F-16 fighters separately to Japan and South Korea for respective joint exercises on February 19. Three days later, on February 22, US and South Korean officials took part in a simulated “table-top” exercise at the US Department of Defense, focusing on the possibility of the North using a nuke. Then on March 13, 11-day joint US-South Korea exercises started around the Korean Peninsula. Dubbed Freedom Shield and Warrior Shield, they are the largest drills held by the two nations in five years.
Meanwhile, the North fired cruise missiles on February 23 to put a check on the US and South Korea, following up with a launch of missiles from a submarine off North Korea’s east coast. Behind the North’s bullish provocations obviously is backing from China and Russia. Under present circumstances, Japan, the US, and South Korea must prepare themselves not only for nuclear and missile threats from the North but also for threats from China and Russia―especially those from the former.
The first step toward solid cooperation among Japan, the US, and South Korea would be an effective sharing of intelligence. Faced with the threats of canon shots, missiles, and nukes, the allies must think they should help each other as members of the same “community of common destiny,” so to speak. What counts most now is a relationship based on mutual trust, but I highly question if there can be trust between Japan and South Korea now and going forward. One obvious factor preventing a breeding of mutual trust is the “radar incident” earlier mentioned.
This was a profoundly mysterious incident. On the Sea of Japan in severe winter on December 20, 2018, a P-1 JSDF patrol aircraft spotted a dilapidated fishing boat, presumed to be from the North, drifting into Japan’s EEZ off the Noto Peninsula. A South Korean destroyer and two sturdy South Korean Coast Guard vessels were also seen closing in on and sandwiching the tiny boat.
Why did this large South Korean destroyer enter Japan’s EEZ? The fishing boat was totally unequipped and looked ready to sink at any time. It was natural for the JSDF aircraft to go out on patrol to find out what was happening in its own EEZ. As the aircraft started approaching the scene, the destroyer suddenly locked its fire-control radar on it. The aircraft left the spot immediately, narrowly managing to avoid serious consequences. Even a moment’s more delay could have been disastrous. Why did the Korean side resort to such a reckless action? I am inclined to suspect there must have been something the South Koreans did not want the aircraft to see. Tsutomu Nishioka, a Korean Peninsula expert and a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, had this to say:
‟Reliable sources have told me that there was an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un a short while before the incident, with approximately 90 suspects having been apprehended. There is a high possibility that the four men found aboard the fishing boat were accomplices at large. Jong-un, who badly wanted to have all of them caught, presumably ordered the South to detain the fishing boat quartet. It’s just a guess but I feel that, with pro-Pyongyang Moon Jae-in at the helm, South Korea might have dispatched the destroyer under Kim’s directives. If you assume this, what might seem an unlikely case of a large warship chasing down a tiny fishing boat in Japan’s EEZ begins to make sense.”
The four detained men were handed over to the North at Panmunjom just three days after their capture, but absolutely nothing has been heard of them since. Yoon to this day has yet to show any intention to launch an investigation into Moon Jae-in’s ties with the North, much less pursue the incident. One cannot but recall that Yoon once belonged to South Korea’s powerful leftwing camp, which embraced Moon.
The lock-on incident makes one speculate about the likelihood of the South Korean military, government, and even Moon having served as Jong-un’s tool. If that was the case, it would become a huge scandal that would turn South Korea upside-down. No longer could South Korea and its military be trusted. That is why South Korea must urgently conduct a thorough investigation into the incident and explain to Japan what really took place. South Korea must also issue an apology to the JSDF and the Japanese government. Only after taking these steps, can South Korea legitimately start a trust-building process with Japan. South Korea can not lay the radar incident aside and still expect to normalize relations with Japan or pursue deeper cooperation among Japan, the US, and itself.
There still are many pending problems between our two nations in connection with the wartime workers’ case and the tighter export controls Japan imposed in July 2019 on some industrial materials bound for South Korea. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has urged South Korea to renounce the right of recourse, citing the Japan-South Korea Claims Agreement of 1965 which settled all claims-related matters irreversibly. But the much expected response from the South Korean government is not included in its proposal for a settlement of the dispute over compensating conscripted workers this time around. Yoon is expected to be in power for the next four years at the longest, and Japan-South Korea relations may once again take a turn for the worse after that, depending on who heads the next South Korean administration.
With an attack on Taiwan by China possibly drawing near, however, neither Japan nor the US can afford to waste their time antagonizing the Yoon administration. In that sense, Japan must step up its efforts to disseminate, not just to South Korea alone but globally, the truth about the problems affecting America’s two closest allies in the Asia-Pacific. While doing our utmost to improve ties with South Korea in the short term, we must continue to be prepared to face major questions about our bilateral relations over the longer term.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,041 in the March 26, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)