Two suspected North Korean spy boats recently invaded Japanese territorial waters in the Sea of Japan. A national controversy still rages over the incident, which came at a time when the Diet was debating legislation covering the new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines. The intrusion sparked a Cabinet order to the Maritime Self-Defense Force to stop and inspect the ships — the first such order issued under the postwar Constitution. Japanese destroyers fired a number of warning shots and aircraft dropped warning bombs in a vain attempt to try to stop the boats.
Many Japanese say the MSDF should have captured or even sunk the boats. Such notions, common among both older men who went to war for imperialist Japan and young men who have no war experience, are absurd. If the MSDF had sunk the boats, without determining that they were on a mission to harm Japanese interest, Japan would have faced a grave diplomatic crisis. We should be satisfied that the crisis ended after Japanese authorities determined that the ships fled to a North Korean port. It was appallingly reckless of North Korea to send spy boats into Japanese territorial waters at a time when the Diet was discussing legislation for dealing with the kind of emergency that could result from such an intrusion. If it had occurred decades ago, the incident would have stirred speculation about a possible conspiracy by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or its South Korean counterpart. Now there is no such talk.
There is no denying that the incident underscored the need for the defense-guidelines legislation and unwittingly encouraged faster Diet action on the bills. Aside from the legislation, the incident raised disturbing questions about Japan’s preparedness to deal with surprise invasions by unidentified ships or aircraft into its territorial waters and air space.
Media reports say that U.S. forces had been aware of the spy boats’ operations for some time but failed to notify Japanese authorities promptly. Other reports said uniformed SDF officers were informed of the operations but did not alert top Defense Agency officials. Some defense experts pointed out that warning operations under the Japan-U.S. security system are flawed since they are reportedly under almost total U.S. control.
Furthermore, the Maritime Safety Agency, which first responded to the crisis, reportedly did not receive full information about the mystery boats. Reports also said the MSA failed to deploy high-speed patrol boats to cope with such an invasion.
In the Diet, some lawmakers lauded Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s swiftness in ordering the MSDF to stop and search the ships, while others expressed doubts about the legality of the order under the pacifist Constitution. Still others said Japanese laws, which are unable to deal with a crisis of this kind, should be revised.
I am concerned about the U.S. military authorities’ reported tardiness in relaying information on the mystery boats to Japan. But I feel that government measures to deal with the incident were appropriate as a whole.
The question is: What country other than North Korea would take the kind of abnormal action that Pyongyang took, encouraging a faster legislative process for the defense-guidelines legislation that it adamantly opposes? Pyongyang leaders’ mind-set is more than weird.
Japan should make patient efforts to help North Korea recover its senses. Toward that end, Japan should express its strong determination never to permit infringements of its sovereignty and other unlawful activities by North Korea. It has been half a century since Japan established the SDF. Some MSDF personnel involved in the operation to stop the unidentified boats reportedly were excited to have fired live warning shots and dropped live warning bombs in the crisis. Their feelings are understandable, but I hope that no incident of this kind will recur.
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