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Japan, S. Korea butting heads over radar incident, but both want settlement

In this May 14, 2017 file photo, a Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 patrol plane flies over the city of Chofu in western Tokyo. (Mainichi/Yosei Kozano)

TOKYO/SEOUL -- Japan and South Korea continue to face off over Tokyo's allegations that a South Korean destroyer targeted its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane over the Sea of Japan. Yet the two countries are also trying to find a way out from the dispute, realizing they need to cooperate over a range of issues including the North Korean problem.

Japan's Ministry of Defense has said that the radar incident occurred on Dec. 20, but its South Korean counterpart has insisted that it never happened. In its Dec. 25 statement, the Defense Ministry said it had "confirmed that radio waves typical of fire-control radar hit (the plane) several times for a certain duration."

The South Korean destroyer that Japan claims aimed its fire-control radar at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force P-1 patrol plane on Dec. 20, 2018. (Photo provided by the Ministry of Defense)

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters the same day that "the South Korean view has some factual mistakes." He then repeated his desire that Seoul take measures to prevent a recurrence.

In a Dec. 24 press conference, a South Korean defense official acknowledged that a camera attached alongside the radar was used to look for a North Korean fishing boat in distress, but the radar itself was powered down. The destroyer instead used three-dimensional radar to search for the ship in the waters and in the air, and radio waves from that equipment hit the P-1 patrol plane belonging to Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), according to people linked to South Korean forces.

Comparing the data from both sides would determine which side is right, experts say.

Former MSDF vice admiral and fleet commander Yoji Koda told the Mainichi Shimbun that just directing the antenna of the fire-control radar -- located next to the camera the South Korean side admitted to using -- at the aircraft could constitute "an attack simulation" that should be avoided under the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. The code was agreed upon by naval forces in the western Pacific, including Japan and South Korea.

Nevertheless, both Japan and South Korea do attach importance to cooperation over issues including countering North Korean threats, and officials of the two countries do share the view that it is more important to settle the dispute than get to the bottom of the radar incident.

Japanese Defense Minister Iwaya told reporters, "Eventually, I want to establish a forward-looking relationship (with South Korea) by exchanging opinions between the relevant authorities." The South Korean Defense Ministry also announced on Dec. 25 that "a meeting to remove misunderstanding will be held."

(Japanese original by Kuniaki Kinoshita, Political News Department, and Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)

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