S.Korea sends a warning to Japan over their unexplained fly-bys

Terry Wilde, April 23, 2019, 9:23 a.m.

South Korea warned Japan that it will turn on firing radars should Japanese maritime patrol planes ever again approach within 5.5 km of South Korean warships after a series of unexplained fly-bys near the Dokdo islets in the East Sea.

Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun daily reported Monday that the South Korean Defense Ministry sent the warning to its Japanese counterpart in January, when the spat flared up.

The spat erupted in December, when Japan claimed that a South Korean Navy destroyer had turned its fire-control radar on a Japanese spy plane flying overhead while the destroyer was on a mission to rescue a North Korean fishing boat.

Seoul at the time said the spy plane had come dangerously close to the South Korean ship and had buzzed it in a threatening manner. Japan claimed the flight was "routine" and denied any deliberate coat-trailing.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff here on Monday admitted that they "summoned the Japanese military attache in January... and informed him that we will issue a warning before switching on the fire-control radar to protect ships and crew in the event of Japanese surveillance planes coming within three nautical miles South Korean vessels in a threatening manner."

A Defense Ministry official said, "The Japanese Defense Ministry asked to reconsider, but we explained to them that the matter was not up for negotiation."

Japan sought talks with South Korea through various unofficial channels, and U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris intervened to calm the spat between Washington's two key allies in the region.

Seoul initially denied the newspaper report. In a press briefing on Monday morning, a Defense Ministry spokesman said the report was "not true" and a JCS spokesman also said it issued no such warning. But later in the day they changed their tune.

The ministry spokesman said, "We will complain about the unilateral release of matters that were discussed in closed-door meetings between officials." The Japanese government did not comment.

Seoul-Tokyo relations have soured since last October, when the Korean Supreme Court sided with victims of forced labor during World War II and later authorized the seizure of assets held by Japanese companies in Korea after they refused to pay compensation.

The government here also effectively voided a murky agreement struck by the previous administration to compensate victims of wartime sex slavery, which Tokyo insists must be honored.

All these frictions could weaken a united regional front among U.S. allies against North Korea and China. The U.S. has repeatedly stressed the importance of the three-way alliance, and Seoul may find itself in an awkward position as Tokyo tries to increase its clout in the region.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travels to Washington on Friday to meet U.S. President Donald Trump and is dispatching a destroyer to a naval fleet review in China on Tuesday brandishing the rising sun flag, which is widely regarded here as a symbol of Japan's imperial past.

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