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Japan-South Korea Tensions Grow Over Radar Lock-on Incident




Relations between Japan and South Korea have deteriorated further in the wake of an incident involving a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and a Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) destroyer.


Defense officials of Japan and South Korea have failed to reconcile their differences in their talks on a bilateral dispute over Tokyo’s claim that the South Korean navy’s destroyer had directed its fire-control radar at a JMSDF P-1 patrol aircraft in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) on December 20, 2018.


The two governments have escalated tensions and highly politicized the dispute by separately releasing multi-language video clips, strongly appealing their positions to the international community.


There are two major conflictive questions between them. First, whether the RoKN’s destroyer, Gwang Gae To Daewang (pennant number 971), had actually locked its targeting radar on the P-1 aircraft. Second, whether the P-1 had conducted a “threatening low-altitude flight” over the South Korean warship in a rescue operation of a drifting North Korean boat.



Did the RoKN Destroyer Lock-On to the Japanese P-1?


Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya has said that the JMSDF succeeded in recording emission data from the South Korean destroyer’s STIR 180 fire-control radar.


The Japanese media have reported that the JMSDF actually recorded the frequency characteristic of the destroyer’s STIR 180 fire-control radar. In other words, the JMSDF has the fingerprint of the destroyer’s radar, thus making Japan confident to assert its position.


On December 27, one day before Japan released its video clip, defense officials of the two nations held a teleconference to discuss the radar incident. At that time Japan revealed the fact that it had gained the evidence of the frequency characteristic of the destroyer’s fire-control radar. Japan further revealed that it had been matched with the JMSDF’s accumulated data on each of South Korean warships’ radars, which have been stored at the Electric Information Center of the Fleet Intelligence Command in the JMSDF Yokosuka Naval Base.


In the teleconference, South Korea requested that Japan submit that data to Seoul. But Japan responded by saying Seoul also should submit their data on the radar from the perspective of reciprocity so that the two nations can cross-check the radar’s frequency characteristic. Seoul refused the request, citing it as a military secret.


According to the Japanese media, this prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to decide to release the video clip.


South Korea has repeatedly denied Japan’s allegation, insisting that he destroyer was using its Signaal MW08 surface search radar during the operation to assist the rescue of the North Korean ship.


Iwaya suggested at a press conference on January 8 that he would consider showing radio wave records in talks with South Korea to prove that the country's destroyer directed fire-control radar at a Japanese patrol plane, on condition that the information remains confidential. It remains unclear if Seoul would accept this suggestion.


In November 2016, after many twists and turns, Tokyo and Seoul signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement for sharing military intelligence.



Did the Japanese P-1 Conduct a ‘Threatening Low-Altitude Flight’ Over a South Korean Warship?


Tokyo has defended the flight of its P-1 patrol aircraft as one carried out in compliance with international laws and within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).


Iwaya said at the press conference on January 8 that Japanese P-1 aircraft was on the same monitoring mission as it had always carried out. He added that Seoul had never complained about it before, thus refusing to apologize to South Korea.


Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has stated that the P-1 came to within 500 meters of the destroyer while flying at an altitude of 150 meters, adding that “the distance was close enough for the crew to feel immense tremors and noise from the aircraft.”



Implications of the Incident for Regional Security


Directing the fire control system is very provocative as it buzzes the fire warning indicators in the aircraft. Although the two nations’ defense authorities pledged to continue discussions on the matter, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have bogged down with no clear exit in sight.


Indeed, political and diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea are close to rock-bottom in the postwar period after 1945. The current situation reflects the lack of a trust relationship.


Looking back upon the past few months, in October 2018 Japan cancelled its planned participation in the international fleet review hosted by the RoKN after Seoul requested that the JMSDF refrain from flying its naval ensign at the event. South Korea considers the ensign a symbol of Japanese military aggression on the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.


The same month, South Korea’s top court ordered the Japanese firm to pay compensation to a group of South Koreans for wartime labor, while Japan says any right to claims was settled completely and finally when diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965.


Furthermore, in November, Seoul unilaterally dissolved the Japan-funded “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation” for the so-called comfort women established in a December 2015 bilateral agreement on the issue.


In December 2018, the South Korean military conducted military exercises near Dokdo islets, called Takeshima in Japan, over which Tokyo claims sovereignty. Japan has lodged a protest against it.


More recently, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said in a New Year’s address that the Japanese government should be more humble on the historical issue.


“Japanese leaders and lawmakers raise these politically-motivated issues and spread them. I don’t think it is a smart attitude,” the South Korean president said.



No Choice But to Work Together


Fueled by nationalism at the hand of politicians, both Japanese and South Korean internet users are so incensed that hundreds have posted opinions on news sites to complain about each other.


As a consequence of the deterioration in relations, the united front among Japan, South Korea, and the United States against North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals is cracking. Tokyo and South Korea shouldn’t forget the reality that the two nations as well as the U.S. have no choice but to work together in coping with North Korea.


That being said, the relationship between Japan and South Korea is likely to become further strained at this crucial juncture. This is especially so as we approach February 22 – Takeshima Day – to mark Japan’s claim to the island that South Korea effectively occupies and refers to as Dokdo.


The climax of bilateral tensions will be March 1, when Seoul celebrates the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement in response to Japanese colonial rule.



Author: Kosuke Takahashi