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Japan, S. Korea defense chiefs shelve radar lock-on row in pursuit of future-oriented ties

From right, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo are seen prior to their meeting in Singapore on June 2, 2019. (Photo provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

Defense leaders of Japan, the United States and South Korea confirmed cooperation between the three countries over North Korea issues at a tripartite meeting held in Singapore on June 2.

During an informal meeting held a day earlier, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo effectively shelved the lingering allegations that a South Korean destroyer locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) patrol plane in December last year, by reiterating their respective positions over the issue. In a meeting on June 2, the two defense chiefs showed their willingness to pursue future-oriented bilateral ties.

At the outset of the trilateral meeting on June 2, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong sounded a positive note for improving bilateral ties with Japan, stating that he was hoping the new era of Reiwa would mark a first step toward a new relationship between Japan and South Korea. His remark came before he referred to collaboration between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.

The radar lock-on issue had come into focus at the June 1 informal bilateral talks. While Japanese Defense Minister Iwaya insisted that the ASDF patrol plane was making an appropriate flight, his South Korean counterpart hit back, saying that the essence of the problem lied in the Japanese plane's proximate, threatening flight. However, neither Iwaya nor Jeong brought up the issue during the three-way talks involving U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on June 2, highlighting the unity between the three countries.

The meetings were held on the sidelines of the IISS Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. While the summit provided an opportunity for Japanese and South Korean defense chiefs to hold face-to-face talks and cement their positions in improving their ties that had been soured by the radar lock-on issue, the two countries had failed to find common ground during a working-level meeting prior to the bilateral talks.

The June 1 informal meeting between Iwaya and Jeong was thus arranged in order for the two parties to "try to communicate in a quiet manner," according to a senior Japanese Defense Ministry official.

Even though the two leaders failed to reach an agreement over the radar issue, Jeong told reporters following the meeting that they had candid talks and shared a view that the two countries should respond to the matter in a practical manner to make sure a similar incident would never occur again.

Iwaya, meanwhile, also told the press following the June 2 trilateral meeting, "It was good that we had held (the informal talks on June 1). The three of us were on the same wavelength and were able to hold a fruitful meeting (on June 2)."

In reporting the June 1 informal meeting, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency described it as a step to normalizing exchanges between Japan and South Korea.

The primary reason for Tokyo and Seoul to put the radar lock-on issue on the backburner and indicate their positive stance toward improving bilateral ties was because they focused on their collaboration vis-a-vis North Korea.

After Pyongyang launched short-range ballistic missiles in May, Japanese and South Korean leaders and defense ministers were unable to hold telephone talks to discuss the matter, raising concerns for adverse effects on information-sharing and maintaining sanctions against North Korea. Amid stalled negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the latter's denuclearization, Pyongyang could resort to further provocations.

For the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which prioritizes improving relations with Pyongyang, it is imperative to forge cooperative ties with not only Washington but also Tokyo. It was therefore necessary for Seoul to smooth its strained relations with Tokyo ahead of the three-party dialogue on June 2.

Yet a host of challenges still remain between Japan and South Korea, even in spite of the reconciliatory mood that was just played out during the latest meetings.

South Korean media outlets reported that the country's forces outlined guidelines in January that they would direct fire-control radar at Japanese patrol planes and other craft should they come as close as 3 nautical miles, or roughly 5.5 kilometers, sparking fears among Japan's SDF personnel.

According to an ASDF pilot, patrol planes guarding Japanese territories sometimes come close to South Korean military vessels when they engage in vigilance against Chinese vessels. "We will continue to discuss SDF aircraft flights" with Seoul, a Japanese Defense Ministry official said.

It remains unclear how the latest meetings would affect future Japan-South Korea relations in general. Regarding South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate former Korean workers for forced labor during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Tokyo has asked for the establishment of an arbitration panel based on the 1965 bilateral accord on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims between the two nations, but Seoul has not backed down on its position that it would be difficult for it to engage in the issue.

While President Moon has displayed his willingness to hold a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting to be held in Osaka later this month, there are no prospects for the bilateral meeting actually taking place, raising speculation that Tokyo and Seoul may continue their tug-of-war over outstanding issues.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department reporting from Singapore; Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau; and Kota Takamoto, North America General Bureau)

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