October 23, 2015 11:40
The first meeting of the South Korean and Japanese defense ministers Tuesday after a freeze of almost five years seems only to have complicated ties between the estranged neighbors.
Any gains from the talks have been overshadowed here by Defense Ministry attempts to keep the lid on one point of contention, namely whether newly empowered Japanese forces would ask permission from Seoul before launching operations in North Korea.
Meeting with Defense Minister Han Min-koo on Tuesday, his Japanese counterpart Gen Nakatani refused to commit himself on whether Japan will need Seoul's approval before launching an intervention in the North in an emergency.
Japan earlier this year decided to reinterpret its pacifist postwar constitution so its forces can deployed abroad under the doctrine of "collective self-defense," i.e. if an ally is in some way under threat.
"There are some opinions that the scope of South Korea's effective control is below the truce line," Nakatani was quoted as saying.
Nakatani had earlier agreed to seek permission from Seoul before any forces are deployed in South Korea, and Han reminded him that the South Korean constitution extends Seoul's sovereignty to the North.
The question is highly charged since many Koreans are sensitive about the prospect of Japanese troops ever setting foot on Korean soil again.
Perhaps mindful of the repercussions, the Defense Ministry did not mention Nakatani's comments in a briefing on their talks and the issue only became public via Japanese media.
Faced with the evidence, the Defense Ministry then accused Japan of breaking a promise to keep shtum on the matter until trilateral defense alliance talks with the U.S. later this year clarify the parameters.
It even claimed it had lodged a protest with the Japanese government.
But on Thursday, after lunch with Han, Nakatani told Japanese reporters no such promises were made. "It's only natural to gain South Korea's consent when the Self-Defense Forces operate in South Korean territory, and Seoul, Washington and Tokyo need to maintain close cooperation in case of an emergency on the Korean peninsula," he said.
He added Han had made no complaint to him about any alleged breach of promise.
The Defense Ministry then issued another statement claiming the two sides did agree to keep some comments confidential and expressed "regret" at Nakatani's latest remarks.
But when pressed by reporters whether Seoul and Tokyo agreed to keep their discussions secret, the ministry again changed tack and said while there was no explicit agreement there had been a "misunderstanding."
A joint statement by the two ministers Tuesday did include Japan's pledge to seek prior consent from Seoul for any South Korean operations but made no mention of Han's alleged reminder that North Korea is also theoretically South Korean territory.
Japan denied there were any objections at all and claimed Seoul is supportive of Japanese forces' activities keeping the peace in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula.
But that too may be spin in favor of the Japanese government's controversial expansion of the Self-Defense-Forces' role. Critics say at the very least Japan was being insensitive in brushing aside South Korean concerns it must be aware of, whether or not Han raised them forcefully in the meeting.
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