Commentary / Japan

Tokyo-Seoul rupture shakes regional balance

by Kan Kimura

Japan-South Korea ties are once again approaching a crossroads. Relations began to deteriorate significantly after the ruling last Oct. 30 by the Supreme Court of Korea concerning so-called conscripted wartime laborers. The ruling met with strong opposition from the Japanese government, rocking the basic structure supported by the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea concluded in 1965 and related agreements that have underpinned the bilateral relationship.

While this issue was significant in structural terms, it related solely to the continued negative legacy of the long period of colonial rule and World War II, so many observers did not initially expect it to have a direct impact on the practical relationship between the two countries.

However, that viewpoint has been overturned by subsequent developments. The turning point was the “radar incident” of Dec. 20 in the waters between Japan and South Korea. The incident occurred between a South Korean warship that was rescuing a North Korean fishing boat in distress and a Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol plane that was on patrol. According to the Japanese government, the South Korean destroyer intimidated the patrol plane by locking onto it with a fire-control radar. The act of locking onto a target using fire-control radar, commonly referred to as “lock-on,” is strictly regulated as a dangerous act that can quickly lead to the use of actual weapons, potentially triggering a war.

South Korea denies the allegation, refusing to acknowledge that the fire-control radar lock-on occurred and claiming that the Japanese patrol plane intimidated the South Korean vessel by flying at an unnecessarily low altitude.

The truth remains unclear. What is important, however, is that the falling out between Japan and South Korea, which had been limited to a structural issue, has as a result of this incident now moved into the sphere of military security. Both Japan and South Korea are U.S. allies and have conducted a number of military exchanges. Those maintained between the South Korean Navy and the MSDF, however, are said to be the closest, which is why the impact of this incident is enormous. The incident occurred in the Sea of Japan (a name itself disputed by Koreans, who prefer “East Sea”), where the islets of Takeshima (called Dokdo by South Korea) are located, possession of which is disputed by the two countries.

If this incident were to damage the harmonious management of the ocean between the two countries, its impact could easily extend to territorial disputes and conflict over the management of the ocean in the surrounding area.

The situation could also potentially lead to more serious problems. Amid the continuing tensions between the navies of Japan and South Korea, each side fueled by national pride, neither government has moved decisively to resolve the issue. This reflects the deep distrust between the two countries.

Normally, such an incident would be settled by exchanging information possessed by the navy of each country at the practical level in order to establish the facts. However, the reason why the two countries are unable to take this step lies in a mutual distrust concerning the management of information, and in the belief that if information were to leak to the other side, the foundation of their own security would be lost.

If that is the case, one thing can be gleaned from this incident: The days when Japan and South Korea enjoyed mutual trust, each believing the other to be a friendly power, are coming to an end. If the navies of the two countries had sufficient trust in one another, the South Korean vessel would not have regarded the approach of the Japanese patrol plane as “intimidation,” and the MSDF may not have considered the fire-control radar lock-on against it a serious threat. If the two countries enjoyed a relationship of complete trust, such problems could be readily resolved where they arise.

This state of affairs is a perfect example of how the spread of distrust between Japan and South Korea, which began with the issue of historical perception, undermines relations between the two countries. Are the friendly relations between Japan and South Korea that underpinned the makings of a trilateral alliance with America really coming to an end? If so, an even greater transformation of the political balance in Northeast Asia is at hand.

Kan Kimura is a professor at Kobe University. ©2019, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency