Speaking with family members of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, "We must consider ways to rescue Japanese abductees in North in case of an emergency situation." He added there are no rules on the dispatch of the Self Defense Forces for such rescue operations but he would "like to seek a Japan-South Korea agreement to allow the SDF to be involved in an emergency." Kan added discussions "are ongoing."
Kan later explained his intent was to see whether South Korea "could accept" Japanese military transport aircraft and other means "and that this needs to be thought about." The Japanese media took a critical approach, saying the dispatch of troops would be against Article 9 of the Constitution and the military law, which prohibit the use of force, and the chances of it happening are scant. South Korean government officials said Kan's comments were "totally unexpected" and there has been no previous discussion.
One thing is clear: Kan's comments were made based on a premature assessment of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. But his comments cannot be brushed aside as a simple slip of the tongue. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a recent visit to South Korea, "It's important that we look to the future and work together, in terms of making a difference in that stability. So I would hope that we would see more interaction, more trilateral interaction and multilateral interaction in the region in the future to involve South Korea, the United States and Japan." This year, for the first time ever, an SDF official observed a joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise, while a South Korean official observed a joint U.S.-Japan military drill.
The U.S. is calling for cooperation between the three countries against North Korean aggression, but a bigger goal of the drills is to keep China in check. The Seventh U.S. Fleet, which will comprise the main thrust of a counterattack in the event of an emergency in North Korea or a sudden attack by the communist country, is based in Japan. As a result, the U.S. feels a strong need to bolster military cooperation between South Korea and Japan in the event of an emergency and is likely to push Seoul and Tokyo toward it.
But for the South, it is difficult to accept the possibility of the Japanese military being dispatched to the Korean Peninsula as long as Tokyo continues to assert its territorial claim over the Dokdo Islets, not to mention living memories of Japan's occupation and its denial of World War II atrocities. China views the South Korea-U.S.-Japan joint military exercises as a hostile move. For South Korea, the matter is extremely delicate and requires a cautious approach. Kan's remarks were not only uncalled for but risk causing needless diplomatic friction.