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Politics & Security

Japan Hosts First International Fleet Review in 7 Years, South Korean Naval Vessels Participate

Joining the International Fleet Review is a positive step but serious bilateral hurdles remain, such as South Korean wartime labor lawsuits and public opinion.

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Defense Build-up strengthening deterrence
Ships from some 12 nations follow escort ship Izumo helicopter carrier leading the international fleet review in Sagami Bay off the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture on the morning of November 6, 2022. (© Maritime Self-Defense Force by Ataru Haruna via helicopter)

On November 6 in Sagami Bay near the port of Yokosuka, vessels from 12 foreign navies joined Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in the first international fleet review to be hosted by Japan in 7 years. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hosted the event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). In his welcoming address, Kishida criticized repeated North Korean missile launchings and development of nuclear weapons. He also reiterated his desire to see Japan's defense capabilities drastically upgraded over the next five years. 

This was the second time in two decades that Japan hosted such an international fleet review. It was also the first time in seven years that South Korean naval vessels have participated in a naval review in Japan. Relations between Japan and South Korea have been frosty in recent years, especially after a 2018 incident in which a South Korean destroyer locked its radar onto a Japanese aircraft flying nearby. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reviews the International Fleet at the ceremony on November 6, 2022. (© Sankei

Kishida's Message for the International Fleet Review

Prime Minister Kishida observed the stately passage of the 38 vessels in the multinational fleet from the deck of the Japanese helicopter carrier Izumo. In his remarks he touched upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying, "We cannot tolerate any attempts, such as Russia's aggression against Ukraine, to unilaterally change the status quo by force anywhere in the world."

With China's growing inroads into regional waters clearly in mind, the prime minister said, "The security environment is rapidly becoming more severe in the areas surrounding Japan, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea." 

Kishida indicated Japan will take measures to respond, such as constructing new warships and bolstering Japan's missile defense capabilities. 

Altogether 18 foreign warships participated in the parade, including vessels from the United States and India. Russia was not invited to participate and China declined an invitation.

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South Korean Navy replenishment vessel Soyang (foreground) undergoing inspection of the Helicopter Carrier Izumo at the International Fleet Review on Sagami Bay on November 6. (©Maritime Self-Defense Force by Ataru Haruna via helicopter)

Defense Cooperation Given Priority in Seoul-Tokyo Relations

There has been domestic opposition in South Korea to allowing the country's naval vessels to conduct joint training exercises with Japan's Self-Defense Forces. Even as the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol was under fire from opposition parties for its "pro-Japan" national defense stance, his administration made the decision to send ships to participate in the international fleet review on November 6. 

Faced with the threat of escalating military provocations from North Korea, Seoul has been signaling that it wants to give priority to security cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan. 

Escort ship Izumo inspected by PM Fumio Kishida at the International Fleet Review. The GSDF's V22 "Osprey" and the MSDF's US-2 amphibian flew overhead. Photographed from the inspection unit leader "Shiranui" at Sagami Bay on November 6 (© Sankei by Shunsuke Sakamaki)

Japan's Naval Ensign Saluted

In accordance with customary naval practice, the crew of the logistics support ship Soayang that Seoul sent to take part in the naval review saluted the Japanese flagship Izumo with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aboard. 

In the past, South Korea has called the Japanese Naval ensign, which has a "rising sun" motif, as a "war crimes flag." It has also made other distorted accusations about the flag's history and meaning. 

When in 2018 under the previous South Korean government of Moon Jae In, South Korea held its own naval review, it demanded that any Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels participating fly Japan's national flag rather than the rising sun naval flag. Japan thereupon refused to participate. That imbroglio, along with the radar-locking incident, were among the major causes of the deterioration in Seoul-Tokyo relations.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a press conference on August 18 (Kyodo).

Opposition Threats  

South Korea's Democratic Party, its largest opposition party, has sought to berate the Yoon government, for example by asking whether its participation in the naval review means it approves of "Japan's invasion of Korea." It has even called the South Korean navy's participation in the fleet review a "wrong decision which will only provoke fury in the nation." 

Park Jin, South Korea's foreign minister, has emphasized, "We took into account the severe security environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula." The Seoul government has pointed out that under previous progressive administrations headed by Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, South Korean naval vessels had participated in Japanese naval reviews. And there had also been instances in which MSDF ships took part in South Korean naval reviews. 

In another refutation of the opposition's criticism, the South Korean government noted that no other countries, including China, had raised objections to the use of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force naval ensign.

Television news reporting the launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea with the image of an earlier launch. November 2, 2022 (Seoul, © Kyodo)

Responding to a Common Threat

In response to the threat posed by North Korean missiles, during September and October, the South Korean military participated in joint exercises with military units from Japan and the United States. 

Lee Jae Myung, the progressive candidate who lost to Yoon in the presidential election earlier in 2022, used the exercises as an excuse to accuse the government of pursuing a "pro-Japan defense policy." 

However, ruling party members have been quick to retort that these joint exercises in fact began under the Moon administration. President Yoon himself has repeatedly stressed the importance of defense cooperation with Japan and the United States. 

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Stumbling Blocks

The biggest stumbling blocks to improved Japan-South Korea relations, the Yoon administration acknowledges, are the wartime labor lawsuits pending in South Korean courts. 

Yoon's government has been searching for a solution that avoids real harm to the Japanese companies. Nonetheless, public opinion has been sympathetic to the plaintiff's demands for both apologies and compensation from the Japanese side.

In addition, the Yoon government is facing sharp criticism for its handling of the recent Halloween Seoul stampede that cost 156 lives. With Yoon's approval rating having dropped below 30 percent, whether he has the political ability to engineer a solution to the long festering wartime labor issue remains an open question. 

Success or failure in that respect is likely to become a major determinant of the future direction for bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea. 

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(Read the related reports in Japanese here.)

Author: Norio Sakurai

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