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EDITORIAL | South Korea Must First Admit It Locked on a Japan Aircraft, Then We Talk

Mutual trust is missing between the supposed security partners. The South Korea Navy committed a dangerous hostile act against Japan's maritime force in 2018.



This frame is from a video of the fire control radar irradiation by the South Korean Navy "Gwanggaeto Daewan" class destroyer. It was released by the Ministry of Defense. It was taken by a Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 patrol aircraft off the Noto Peninsula (within Japan's EEZ) on December 20, 2018. (Provided by the Ministry of Defense)

Cooperation between the Japan Self-Defense Force and the South Korea Armed Forces is going ahead without the most essential element — mutual trust.

Recently, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada met with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore. The two agreed to promote defense cooperation related to North Korea and the Indo-Pacific region.

Earlier, the defense ministers of Japan, the United States, and South Korea were joined by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In their trilateral meeting, they condemned North Korea's attempt to launch a "military reconnaissance satellite." They also agreed to begin real-time sharing of information on North Korean ballistic missiles. That should happen by the end of 2023, along with regularizing joint military exercises involving the three countries.

Japan's Minister of Defense, Hamada Yasukazu, speaks at a plenary session during the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 3, 2023. (©REUTERS/Caroline Chia)

Deep Fissures 

These agreements would be much appreciated as a step forward in security cooperation if the parties involved were normal national partners. However, in this case, there is cause for concern.

That is because the resolution of the 2018 incident involving a fire control radar lock-on of a Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft has been placed on the back burner. In the incident, a South Korean Navy destroyer locked its radar on the Japanese MSDF aircraft. 

Hamada and Lee did, however, confirm that they would accelerate talks to prevent the recurrence of "similar cases."

Nonetheless, the South Korean side still refuses to acknowledge the fact that irradiation occurred. Nor has it changed its claim that the MSDF aircraft flew in a threatening manner. Since both sides have different ideas of what constitutes a "similar case," talks are bound to go nowhere.

This frame is from a video of fire control radar irradiation by a South Korean Navy destroyer. Released by the Ministry of Defense, it was taken by a Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 patrol aircraft off the Noto Peninsula (within Japan's EEZ) on December 20, 2018. (Provided by the Ministry of Defense)

What Happened

On December 20, 2018, a South Korean Navy destroyer used its radar to irradiate a patrol aircraft of the MSDF in the Sea of Japan. Preparing for an attack with missiles or other weapons by "locking onto" a target can be considered a dangerous hostile act. 

It is clear from the radar detection recordings and other evidence released by the SDF that the irradiation did in fact take place.

The MSDF aircraft was conducting a normal patrol flight in accordance with international law and aviation law at the time of the incident. Japan has therefore urged Seoul to admit fault and take measures to prevent a recurrence. 

Despite this, South Korean officials falsely claimed that the MSDF aircraft was threatening their ship and demanded an apology from Japan. They have even warned that if there is a repetition, "We will respond strongly in accordance with our rules governing military responses."


It is true that the incident occurred under the previous administration of Moon Jae In, which had a virulently anti-Japan bent. But even the current administration of Yoon Suk-yeol, which takes a more pragmatic stance on security policy than the previous administration, refuses to acknowledge the facts regarding the irradiation. That is extremely unfortunate. 

The South Korean government and military seem incapable of "self-cleansing." As things stand, it would be quite difficult for the SDF to build stable ties of trust with the South Korean military. They should be aware that the only parties rejoicing over this situation are countries like North Korea and China.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should not turn a blind eye to Seoul's unreasonable demands. And he should not repeat once again Japan's postwar habit of engaging in "pampering diplomacy" regarding South Korea.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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