Japan, South Korea in Talks to Resume Defense Exchanges; Aim to End Radar Directing Issue.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Then Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, right, shakes hands with then South Korean counterpart Lee Jong-sup prior to their talks in Singapore in June last year.

The Japanese and South Korean governments have started discussions to resume bilateral defense exchanges, which have been effectively suspended in the wake of the incident where a South Korean Navy ship directed its fire-control radar at a Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft in 2018, it has been learned.

The two sides are arranging for a defense ministerial meeting on the sidelines of the Asian Security Summit, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, to be held in Singapore from May 31 to June 2. The ministers are expected to agree on measures to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident and to promote reciprocal visits by cabinet ministers and other senior government officials as well as senior uniformed officers.

Since the South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a proposal to resolve the issue of lawsuits related to former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula in March last year, relations between the two countries have been improving in both the political and economic areas with future-oriented mindsets. The two governments hope to bring an end to the radar issue, which has been the biggest barrier between the defense authorities, and to normalize relations on the security front as well.

The two governments are considering exchanging documents between the MSDF and the South Korean Navy to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, in conjunction with the defense ministerial meeting. Based on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), an international standard for avoiding collisions at sea, the two governments plan to agree to ensure freedom of flight and navigation and safety on the high seas, as well as thorough communication when the two sides’ vessels and aircraft approach at a close range.

The two countries’ claims over the radar issue have been at odds, with South Korea denying the directing of the radar and the MSDF aircraft approaching at an abnormal proximity to the South Korean naval vessel. The defense authorities of the two governments held a series of working-level talks. However, as the South Korean side maintained its denial, and the working-level talks were suspended in January 2019. High-level exchanges between defense authorities were disrupted, and there have been concerns about the impact on policy coordination and crisis management between the two countries.

Regarding responses to issues over North Korea, security cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea is progressing. However, it is also essential to strengthen cooperation between Japan and South Korea, which serves as the foundation for such efforts.

With the security environment in East Asia becoming increasingly harsh, Tokyo and Seoul have judged that discord between the two countries, which share a common interest in maintaining regional stability, would benefit North Korea. The two countries will use the resumption of defense exchanges as an opportunity to rebuild trust between their forces, with such efforts as holding joint bilateral defense drills.

The two governments are also in talks to hold a Japan-South Korea summit meeting on the sidelines of a trilateral summit meeting of Japan, China and South Korea to be held in Seoul later this month. The two governments intend to reaffirm the importance of promoting security cooperation at the highest level.