It is unfortunate that the facts will remain vague because of the decision by the Defense Ministry to end talks with its South Korean counterpart on the December incident in which a South Korean destroyer allegedly targeted a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) P-1 patrol aircraft with fire-control radar. The move, however, was inevitable to ease rising tensions between Japan and South Korea.
The ministry made the move by issuing a final statement on the matter, saying that the South Korean side "keeps repeating arguments that are completely different from the facts."
The ministry also released data of the radar waves converted to sound that the P-1 patrol aircraft detected inflight. The continuous high-pitched sound is different from that of search radar, which South Korea insists was used in the Dec. 20 incident, and the data is supposed to support the ministry's argument that the fire-control radar targeted the plane.
However, the South Korean side did not accept that the sound is genuine. The Japanese side has the option of releasing frequency data of the detected waves, but that information needs to be matched up with South Korean data of the destroyer's radar to confirm the facts.
If the Japanese side released the data on its own, it would run the risk of revealing Japan's secret radio wave analysis to the entire world. Due to South Korea's refusal to match up information from both sides, the sound data was the best Japan could offer.
A question remains about the South Korean vessel's activities in Japan's exclusive economic zone. Seoul insists that the destroyer was helping a North Korean fishing boat in distress, but it was really unusual that a warship was there. One has no choice but to speculate that the South Korean vessel had something to hide from the P-1 aircraft.
Seoul has waged an intense resistance to Japanese inquiries, and staged criticism that can be described as emotional. They said the MSDF plane was flying at a "threateningly low-altitude" and demanded an apology, and asserted that Japan was "extremely rude" for seeking a matchup of the data that both sides hold on the incident. After such developments, calm discussions on the matter cannot be anticipated for the time being.
Japan's initial goal of having South Korea accept the fact that the destroyer did lock on its fire-control radar and agree on measures to avoid a recurrence has not been achieved. Nevertheless, continuing to repeat Japan's position further is not likely to secure the understanding and support of the international community.
The leaders of the U.S. and North Korea are going to have another summit in February, and the North Korean nuclear and missile issue will face an important phase. Shelving the confrontation between Japan and South Korea, out of consideration for the need for collaboration between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, is a decision with some merit.
But one has to worry about the stance of South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and his administration that places more importance on the South-North relationship than on Japan-South Korea ties. This attitude begs the question if the administration really shares a desire to counter Pyongyang with Japan and the U.S.
Japan and South Korea's vital bilateral relationship should not be left in this current state.