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Worries of worsening bilateral ties after S. Korean ship aims fire-control radar at MSDF plane

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)

TOKYO -- Japanese government officials are worried that already rocky Tokyo-Seoul ties will deteriorate further after a South Korean destroyer targeted its fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) patrol aircraft on Dec. 20.

A recent string of events including a South Korean Supreme Court decision ordering a Japanese company to compensate former wartime forced workers has chilled bilateral relations. In the latest incident, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the South Korean destroyer locked its targeting system radar on the MSDF plane at around 3 p.m. inside Japan's exclusive economic zone off the coast of the Noto Peninsula, in the central prefecture of Ishikawa. It was the first time that such an incident has been revealed.

The ministry explained that crew members on the MSDF plane witnessed a South Korean Gwanggaeto the Great-class destroyer training its fire-control radar on the aircraft, detected radar pulses, and made evasive maneuvers. They radioed the ship to ask about its intentions, but no reply was confirmed.

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)

The South Korean ship's actions were typical of "a prelude to an attack," said Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya. "It was an extremely dangerous action that could have triggered unforeseen consequences." An individual linked with the Defense Ministry blasted the South Korean move, saying, "We never imagined a friendly nation like South Korea would do such a thing."

The South Korean Ministry of Defense, however, issued a statement that said the ship used its radar "according to operational norms, and it is a fact that we did not use the equipment to track a Japanese patrol plane."

Incidents involving the use of fire-control radar -- used to determine the bearing of and distance from a target before opening fire -- include one in January 2013 when a Chinese frigate locked into a Japanese destroyer. The Japanese government lodged a strong protest with Beijing.

The relationship between Tokyo and Seoul has frozen over following the South Korean Supreme Court decision and the announcement by the South Korean government that it would dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation to support former "comfort women" forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II.

The two countries' defense establishments have also had their share of troubles. In October, when the South Korean Navy hosted an international fleet review, Seoul asked the MSDF to refrain from flying the rising sun flag -- a perceived symbol of Japan's past militarism and colonial control of the Korean Peninsula. The MSDF withdrew its ships from the event.

Following the announcement of the latest South Korean ship's action, Defense Minister Iwaya was asked on a BS Fuji television program if the incident was triggered by the issue of former forced laborers and other causes of bilateral tension. "I want to believe that the accumulation of those incidents was not behind this," Iwaya answered.

A senior Foreign Minister official asserted that what happened on Dec. 20 was "impossible." The visibly disappointed official said Tokyo was waiting for a detailed explanation from the South Korean side, "but I wonder how our relationship will develop."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Maetani, City News Department, and Kuniaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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