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Japan-S. Korea row over radar incident likely to keep affecting bilateral ties

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 -- The Japanese government terminated talks with South Korea over the latter's destroyer locking fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane, in an apparent bid to de-escalate a contentious issue. However, a final statement released by the Japanese Ministry of Defense on Jan. 21 harshly criticized South Korea, signaling that a resolution still may be far away.

"The MOD (Ministry of Defense) has concluded that the ROK's (South Korea's) claim lacks both persuasiveness and the support of factual evidence, and was made to dilute other important issues regarding the fire-control radar incident," the statement said. Seoul had claimed that the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) P-1 patrol plane was flying at "a threateningly low-altitude" near its destroyer doing a "humanitarian rescue mission."

A senior Japanese official stated, "There is no point in dragging this issue out further because South Korea doesn't accept anything we say." In response to the Japanese announcement, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo expressed "deep regrets" at a press conference.

The Japanese Defense Ministry initially intended to settle the matter peacefully. Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya criticized the Dec. 20 radar incident in the Sea of Japan as an "extremely dangerous act," but called for Seoul to establish a "cooperative relationship" between defense authorities of the two countries that looked toward the future. A senior Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official also expressed a hope that "misunderstanding would be settled through discussions among professionals at the working level," because Japan and South Korea enjoy friendly relations.

The situation, nevertheless, continued to deteriorate. The South Korean Ministry of Defense even denied the lock-on incident, saying that the destroyer only used search radar to locate a North Korean fishing boat in distress. After Japan released a video showing the incident, South Korea used the footage to append voiceover and subtitles contesting the account, and released a re-edited version as a rebuttal.

In a Jan. 14 working-level meeting in Singapore, Japanese officials proposed presenting radar wave data proving the lock-on, but the South Korean side refused to provide its data, citing military secrets. The following day, Choi accused Japanese officials of being "extremely rude" at a press conference.

Behind these developments lie the deterioration of the bilateral relationship overall, stemming from historical issues between Japan and South Korea. They include the recent South Korean Supreme Court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate its wartime South Korean laborers who said they were forced to work. Another issue of contention is the dissolution of a foundation set up based on an agreement between the two governments to support former "comfort women" who were forced to offer sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Moreover, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his staff, who are supposed to lead efforts to improve the Japan-South Korean ties, have effectively left almost all the handling of the radar issue up to the South Korean Defense Ministry. The Moon administration is instead focusing on improving ties with North Korea, and keeping the domestic economy in shape. South Korean media as well as its citizens have also not shown much interest in the radar incident.

In contrast, the Japan government has been angry about Seoul's moves over the issues concerning forced laborers and comfort women, saying it counters bilateral agreements on wartime redress in 1965 and for victims of wartime sexual violence in 2015.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference shortly before the Jan. 21 Defense Ministry announcement that the he had received a report from the ministry about "objective facts," suggesting the ministry's final statement represents the stance of the entire Japanese government.

Yun Deok-min, former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed a pessimistic view about the future of bilateral ties. The two sides will "most likely not even be able to discuss measures to avoid a recurrence (of the radar incident) for the time being," he said.

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department, and Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau)

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