“Should a contingency break out in a neighboring country, putting the lives of Japanese citizens trying to evacuate at risk, would it be right for the government not to do anything to help them?” asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a press conference in Brussels on June 5. He emphatically added, “As the prime minister, I have the responsibility to protect the lives and peaceful existence of our nationals.”

The rhetoric was the same as the one he used at a previous press conference on May 15 to gain public support for his bid to revise the long-standing official interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan would be able to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

At the May 15 press conference, Abe exhibited a large panel depicting a Japanese Self-Defense Force ship protecting an American naval transport vessel that is carrying Japanese citizens near Japan’s coast. He pointed out that under the traditional interpretation of the Constitution, “The SDF is not permitted to come to the aid of this American vessel.”

But there is a basic problem with Abe’s argument. As a diplomatic reporter of a newspaper with nationwide circulation commented, “Would Japanese nationals be allowed to go on board an American military transport ship in the first place?”

An armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be the case in which planning for the evacuation of Japanese nationals would become an urgent task. Since the death in December 2011 of supreme leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea has fired ballistic missiles three times and conducted one nuclear weapons test, and has not abandoned its posture of military provocation.

As of October 2012, Japanese citizens residing in South Korea numbered 33,846, the 10th-largest group of foreigners there. Moreover, statistics released by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism showed that between April 26 and May 6 of this year, Golden Week in Japan, 101,924 Japanese tourists visited South Korea. At the peak of a tour season, a daily average of close to 10,000 Japanese visit the country, most of them visiting Seoul and nearby places, despite the strained relations between Japan and South Korea.

Seoul is known for its close proximity to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas — less than 40 km and within an hour’s drive. The capital city is targeted by North Korea’s long-range rockets, which would be fired from multiple launchers. The North possesses the capability for a one-time salvo of 5,000 rockets. Multiple rocket launchers deployed along the DMZ have a joint capability for a one-time salvo of more than 300 rockets aimed at Seoul. In case of war between the two countries, most of the other multiple rocket launchers would likely be deployed close to the DMZ, joined by tanks and other artillery. Tens of thousands of shells per hour would rain on Seoul.

On Nov. 23, 2010, the North Korean military fired on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak countered by conducting a large-scale maritime firing exercise near the island, which in turn prompted the North to line up artillery along its shores aimed at the South. Although the North did not fire at the artillery, a Japanese government official said he was “scared to death” because of the South’s reckless move in a situation in which there was a 50 percent chance of the North launching a counterattack.

There is an increasing possibility of an accidental military clash on the Korean Peninsula because of the growing influence of the North Korean military over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been depicted by South Korean officials as a playboy who is not serious about his job.

Should shells from the North actually start falling on Seoul, how would the tens of thousands of Japanese nationals flee to safety? Two decades ago when a suspicion arose that Pyongyang was building nuclear weapons, the Japanese government secretly ordered its embassy in Seoul to draft an evacuation plan after the North threatened at a meeting at Panmunjom on the DMZ line to burn Seoul to ruins.

This task proved to be extremely difficult as it was deemed next to impossible to secure the cooperation of the South Korean government. Even though Tokyo-Seoul relations at the time were not as bad as they are now, the Korean side was worried about the possible confusion in Korean society that an evacuation of foreign nationals could cause.

Around that time, U.S. President Bill Clinton drew up plans for a limited bombing of nuclear facilities in the North and instructed his ambassador in Seoul to start studying the evacuation of U.S. citizens in South Korea.

South Korean President Kim Young-sam was reportedly infuriated when the envoy conveyed the plan to him at the Blue House and demanded that it be rescinded. This episode convinced Tokyo that it could not expect Seoul to provide anything — motor vehicles, food or water let alone airplanes — to help Japanese citizens evacuate.

The best scenario is to evacuate Japanese nationals while commercial airliners are in service. But they cannot be counted on in the case of a sudden attack. Eventually the Japanese government worked out the following evacuation plan: Japanese citizens would first secure documents proving their nationality on their own and cross to the south side of the Han River, which runs through central Seoul from east to west. This must be done expeditiously because the North would likely destroy the river’s bridges.

Then they would proceed to the Japanese School on the southern side of the river, receive foods stocked there, and follow the instructions of Japanese embassy officials. Then they would, again on their own, move to U.S. military bases or the southern port city of Busan, depending on circumstances.

This evacuation plan had a number of inherent problems: How would it be disseminated to Japanese citizens, especially tourists, in the event of an emergency? Prior notification would be difficult because it would cause a panic. Even if Japanese citizens manage to reach the Japanese School, it would take six hours by bus to reach Busan. How would they travel to Busan when public transportation would likely be paralyzed? Even if it was assumed that they could reach an American military base, there was no guarantee that they would be accommodated unconditionally.

The Japanese government subsequently made a strong request to the U.S. that it pledge in writing to transport Japanese nationals in addition to U.S. nationals in the event of a military contingency on the Korean Peninsula. But Washington gave only a verbal understanding, saying no special treatment could be given to Japan among the U.S.’ many allies.

The recent deterioration of relations between Tokyo and Seoul has made matters worse. Many within the South Korean government and military go as far as to say that they would never let Japanese SDF ships or aircraft enter South Korean territory.

When the Democratic Party of Japan was in power from 2009 to 2012, it sought to conclude with South Korea two bilateral accords — the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) — in line with a U.S. initiative to strengthen tripartite cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

But this attempt has not borne fruit as Tokyo-Seoul ties have worsened over the issue of the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Imperial Japanese military and the territorial dispute over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan. And with the Japanese media overflowing with Korea bashing almost every day, the South Koreans are showing little to no willingness, even at the cost of their own lives, to help Japanese citizens take refuge on U.S. naval vessels as Abe hopes.

If the current situation continues, Abe’s call for the exercise of the right to collective self-defense as well as the protection of Japanese citizens on the Korean Peninsula in the event of an emergency is doomed to become pie in the sky.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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