It was March 24, 1999, at 12:50 AM. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force-guided missile-destroyer Myoko was in pursuit of an unidentified vessel off the Noto Peninsula when the Prime Minister’s official residence issued the first ever order for a “Maritime Security Operation.”
First Lieutenant Sukeyasu Ito, the captain of Myoko at the time, and his crew concluded from the double doors located at the stern of the vessel that it was a North Korean covert operations ship. They strongly believed Japanese abductees were on that vessel.
Ito still remembers the events very clearly: “I pictured a Japanese [victim] being forcefully dragged into the depths behind those doors. It felt like my blood had begun to flow backwards; I felt a surge of intense emotions that I could not hold back.”
The unidentified vessel ignored warning shots and escaped from the Japanese ship while dodging the plumes from exploding shells. Then, it came to a sudden halt in the middle of the Sea of Japan. Despite their not having any proper equipment or training, Ito had no choice but to send a team out for inspection. Unfortunately, the search failed to take place as the unidentified vessel began moving once again.
At that same time, Self-Defense Force radar registered an MIG fighter jet taking off from North Korea. Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighters took off from the Japanese side as well. “It was a critical situation,” said one of the former officers who was in charge of control operations.
The government’s ultimate decision was to suspend the search for the unidentified vessel. It seems that the decision was made to avoid an armed clash.
The incident with the unidentified vessel off the Noto Peninsula was a shock to Japan, a country at peace. It’s hard to guess what would have happened had the ship been stopped. What can be said is that there was no order from the Maritime Self-Defense Force headquarters to “rescue any kidnapping victims found.”
Ito said: “The government and Ministry of Defense had no intention of utilizing the Self-Defense Forces in this kidnapping issue in the first place. I will never forget in my lifetime” having seen a ship that might have had kidnapping victims on board.
■ ■ ■
After the failed pursuit of the North Korean covert operations vessel, Ito put his energy into organizing a “Special Security Force.” Currently, he’s retired and works alongside Takashi Araya, a former colonel in the Ground Self-Defense Force who was the the first commander of its special operations unit. They lead the movement seeking the rescue of the abductees. Even now there has been no progress in negotiations, and North Korean military provocations continue.
Araya and others are skeptical. They note that while the government has said that “rescue of the abductees is of the highest priority,” there has been no formal consideration of the role of the Self-Defense Forces in rescue efforts.
Even if it is unrealistic to think of the Self-Defense Forces embarking on a military mission in North Korea to rescue the abductees, Araya points out that “there is scope for considering situations other than military operations.”
Recently, in a jointly authored work “Jieitai Genso (Self-Defense Force Illusion)” (published by the Sankei Shimbun), Araya took up this theme. “Jieitai Genso” presents simulations of “how the Self-Defense Forces can come into play” in case of a North Korean emergency.
Assuming North Korea falls into a state of rebellion internally, there will be mobilization of Aegis-equipped ships and helicopter carriers from Japan. Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, interpreters, and nationals will be taken to the location of captivity, where they will then confirm the victims’ identities and commence immigration paperwork. Finally, Self-Defense Special forces will transport government officials and all other members to a helicopter carrier waiting off the North Korean coast.
However, regardless of previous levels of “repatriation” based on military tactics, a number of controversial points have come into the picture.
For starters, there’s no existing law that permits the Self-Defense Forces to enter another country and search for fellow Japanese nationals. Because of this, it is necessary that Foreign Ministry officials know the whereabouts of their fellow countrymen beforehand. But is this possible? How will the administration deal with the possibility of casualties among the Japanese civilians and government officials being transported out of the country?
Araya points out that that the government needs to give careful consideration to the details of any such operation. He also states, “Given the government responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens, any failure to consider the role of the Self-Defence Forces would have to be called a dereliction of duty.”
■ ■ ■
In 2015, Japan passed a national security bill. “Rescue” was added to the Self-Defense Force’s duties. In addition to the heretofore authorized use of force in self-defense was added its use against armed attackers in an emergency evacuation of Japanese nationals.
Despite this, “rescuing abductees” is currently yet to be explicitly included within the remit of the Self-Defense Forces. Because “Self-Defense Forces work within the law,” they cannot tackle these issues if the duty isn’t stipulated.
Armed agents abducting nationals on a coastline is considered an act of terrorism that can be dealt with by military actions on the part of the specials forces. Such an operation would be a “military engagement,” but, as a matter of fact, Japan cannot be referred to as “a normal country” because it does not actually possess the physical means for response because of the limitations stemming from Article 9 of the Constitution.
The United States has executed rescue missions through special forces for nationals held in captivity overseas. “Japan should at least accept the abduction issue as a security issue and consider what the Self-Defense Forces can do” Araya noted.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)