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South Korea Must Come Clean on Radar Lock-on Incident to Clear the Way for Better Security Cooperation

To normalize relations between Japan and South Korea, the Seoul government must also admit and explain the 2018 South Korean radar lock-on of a Japan SDF plane.



South Korea
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol waves a national flag during a ceremony to celebrate Korean Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, at the presidential office square in Seoul, South Korea, August 15, 2022. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS

The recent historic low of Japan - South Korea relations is finally showing signs of amelioration. That is thanks to the efforts of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's administration. 

These efforts are indeed commendable. However, I do not believe we have reached the point where both nations can cooperate in responding to the growing threats from China and North Korea.

South Korea
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin holds a press conference on the solution for the wartime labor issue on March 6, 2023 in Seoul (© Kyodo)

Normalization of Relations in the Background

In January, the South Korean government proposed a solution to the pending issue of the South Korean Supreme Court's unjust verdict on Korean wartime labor. Under this proposal, a government-affiliated foundation is to pay the reparations ordered of two Japanese companies by the court. However, Seoul is demanding "response measures" from the Japanese government and the defendant companies.

The 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling not only contravened international law but also endeavored to negate Japan's Supreme Court decisions. The ruling declared that Japanese colonial rule was illegal and Koreans still had the right to claim damages. It also asserted that "since Japan's judgment on the issue (is) premised on the assumption that its colonial administration of the Korean Peninsula and the Korean people was legal, it violates the public morals and social order of the Republic of Korea and (therefore) cannot be considered valid."

At the time of the 1965 treaty on the normalization of diplomatic relations and settlement of claims, Seoul expressed its position that the annexation treaty was "invalid from its inception" but did not seek compensation for it. 

Tokyo has not wavered in its stance that the rule of Korea was legal. In 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's cabinet adopted a Cabinet Decision on Korean wartime labor. This decision affirmed that the mobilization was legal wartime labor mobilization, not "coercive requisition" or "forced labor," making this the standard for textbook reviews.

Japan's Counterproductive Apologies

Since the 1980s, Japan has repeatedly offered moral apologies and support in a humanitarian capacity. However, all of this has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead, the backlash has continued to mount over why Japan did not accept legal responsibility despite having apologized. 

At a January 2023 discussion hosted by the South Korean government, the director general of the Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry openly criticized Japan's response. "The Japanese government has expressed apologies and remorse for the past many times, but has repeatedly reversed its position," he said. "The South Korean people do not trust Tokyo, and a true reconciliation has yet to be realized."

South Korea
South Korean Court throws out the 1965 bilateral treaty and settlement of claims, ruling against Japan.

Therefore, I urge the Japanese government and companies to adhere to the following principles.

First, maintain firm opposition to any financial contributions to this foundation from the defendant companies. If contributions were made, this would constitute an acceptance of the court-ordered payments. 

Toward this end, companies should avoid any contract with the foundation that does not include a guarantee. According to South Korean civil law, in order to subrogate this compensation, the companies would have to enter into a contract with the foundation. This contract could mean acknowledging the obligation imposed by this unreasonable decision. It is thus vital to obtain a guarantee that the foundation will not ask the companies to fulfill this obligation at a later date.

Apologies Only Lead to New Accusations

Second, concerning apologies, the companies concerned should not apologize, even from a moral perspective. They only engaged in legal employment methods and no apology is appropriate. 

Moreover, if the government is to make a diplomatic reiteration of its past moral apologies, it should simultaneously reaffirm its legal position that colonial rule and wartime labor mobilization were legal. Failure to do so will lead to new South Korean accusations that Japan is "reversing" its position again. This in turn will affect Tokyo's attempts to register the Sado gold mine as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the screening of history textbooks.

South Korea
South Korean naval and coast guard vessels are shown on the seas in 2018 with a North Korean wooden boat in an image from a Japanese reconnaisance plane that was locked-on by hostile South Korean radar.

The Unresolved Radar Lock-on Issue

Another issue that must be resolved to improve Japan-South Korea relations is the radar lock-on incident. In December 2018, a South Korean naval destroyer directed its fire-control radar at a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) patrol aircraft. The irradiation of the SDF aircraft triggered its threat alarm warning.

In response to Japan's protests, the Moon Jae In administration was obstinate in its assertion that there had been no radar lock-on. The administration maintained a hostile attitude, offering neither an apology nor a promise to prevent a recurrence. Japan Self-Defense Force officials therefore developed a deep mistrust of South Korea. That alone makes security cooperation between the two countries difficult.

The South Korean destroyer and a large Korean Coast Guard (KCG) patrol ship that carried out the lock-on were rescuing a North Korean wooden vessel drifting in the Sea of Japan when the patrol plane approached. What exactly did the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy not want the SDF to see? The wooden boat was not equipped with a radio, and neither the Japanese Coast Guard nor the SDF received any distress signals.

South Korea North Korea
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks in this undated photo released on August 10, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS.

Purge of the North Korean Supreme Guard Command

Reports say that one of the four men aboard the vessel was already dead at the time of rescue. Although the remaining three must have been in very feeble condition, South Korea repatriated them to North Korea after only three days. No information about them has been made public.

What North Korean sources had to say on the matter was harrowing. A large-scale purge of the Supreme Guard Command, Kim Jong Un's personal bodyguard force, began in the fall of 2018. The reason behind this purge was the revelation of an incident in which a senior officer of the command had used a modified phone to inform US intelligence agencies of Kim Jong Un's location. Several senior officials, including commanders and political commissars, were executed or sent to camps.

The purge then spread to a trading company under the Supreme Guard's command. Fearing arrest, reports say that four of the company's executives stole a wooden ship and fled to seek asylum in Japan. 


Through a particular communication channel, the Kim Jong Un regime requested the Moon Jae In administration to prevent the four from defecting. Pyongyang demanded their repatriation to North Korea. Accordingly, the South Korean Navy and KCG were deployed for the operation. 

If this is true, it is a matter of grave concern. At the very least, it confirms that there was a major purge of the Supreme Guard Command.

predictions South Korea
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 13, 2022. (© The Cabinet Public Relations Office)


I would like to emphasize that in order to normalize relations between Japan and South Korea, it is imperative that the South Korean government admit that radar lock-on occurred. It must also ascertain the truth through a thorough investigation, clarify where responsibility lies, and promise to prevent a recurrence. 


(Read the Seiron report in Japanese.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu Nishioka is a professor at The Moralogy Foundation and a Visiting Professor at Reitaku University.