Japan Vessels Displaying Rising Sun Ensign to Make Port Call in South Korea

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Kyokujitsuki Rising Sun flag is hoisted on a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel.

The Japanese and South Korean governments are making arrangements for a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel displaying the Kyokujitsuki Rising Sun ensign to make a port call in South Korea, while visiting that nation to participate in a multinational maritime exercise, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

The planned port call by a vessel hoisting the ensign comes as bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul have quickly improved since the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol came to power. Both sides are keen to further bolster defense exchanges.

According to multiple Japanese and South Korean government sources, the vessel could arrive at the port in Busan as soon as the end of this month.

The administration of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in one-sidedly considered the Kyokujitsuki to be problematic and had demanded that Japan refrain from flying the flag. If the planned port visit goes ahead with the Kyokujitsuki hoisted, South Korea’s treatment of this flag would return to being in line with international rules.

The South Korean government will hold the maritime exercise, which also will include vessels from the U.S. and Australian militaries, off the southern island of Jeju on May 31. The exercise aims to improve cooperation between these nations’ naval forces in a maritime interception that prevents the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction. The MSDF vessel plans to visit the Busan port while displaying the Kyokujitsuki around the time of the exercise, and high-ranking MSDF officers will conduct exchanges with officials from the other nations.

Under international rules, warships — including those of the SDF — must bear an external indicator that shows the vessels’ nationality. Under the Self-Defense Forces Law, SDF naval vessels are required to display an ensign that performs this role. However, in 2018, South Korea hosted an international fleet review, but the Moon administration requested that the invited MSDF vessel refrain from flying the Kyokujitsuki. Outraged by this move, the MSDF decided against participating in the review.

The left-leaning support base of the Moon administration, in particular, considered the Kyokujitsuki to be a “symbol of Japanese militarism” and described it as a “war crime flag.” In December 2018, a South Korean destroyer directed its fire-control radar at an MSDF patrol aircraft, an incident that quickly chilled defense cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.

The Japanese government has repeatedly conveyed to the South Korean side its position that criticizing the Kyokujitsuki as a “war crime flag” is unwarranted. South Korea allowed MSDF vessels to fly the ensign on occasions, including an international fleet review it hosted in 2008.

The Kyokujitsuki’s design, which features red rays radiating from a central disk, was adopted under an order for enforcement of the SDF Law in 1954. It was also used by the former Imperial Japanese Navy. The same law requires the SDF to fly this ensign and the national flag on its vessels. This flag also is commonly used in a wide range of situations, including by companies and fishing boats indicating they have landed a bumper catch.

The Yoon administration, which has pushed ahead with efforts to improve ties with Japan, apparently decided that allowing an MSDF vessel to display the ensign was appropriate, given the necessity of working closely on North Korean issues and to move on from a politically tinted sequence of events.

The Japanese and South Korean defense ministers are scheduled to hold talks on the sidelines of an international conference in Singapore in early June. The ministers are expected to confirm their intention to aim to quickly resolve the fire-control radar incident, which remains a pending problem in the relationship.