During the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) held in October last year, the then-Chief of Staff of the JMSDF Hiroshi Yamamura invited all 21 WPNS member states to partake in the 2022 fleet review. The Chief of Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno confirmed that this included South Korea during a press conference on August 23rd.
“We decided to invite South Korea after taking into consideration the overall state of Korean-Japanese relations…The fleet review is conducted to encourage cooperation between navies and maintain peace in the region, which is why we have invited all WPNS member states except Russia, including South Korea.”
Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s Chief of Cabinet Secretary
The invitation comes after the successful completion of several multilateral exercises involving both countries, including the Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2022. Both South Korea and Japan deployed their largest ships to the exercise this year.
If South Korea decides to accept the invitation it will mark the first time a Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) vessel will partake in a Japanese fleet review since 2015 and the third time since the turn of the century. The ROKN has also been invited to a search and rescue training exercise hosted by the JMSDF.
South Korean reaction
President Yoon Suk-yeol has emphasized the importance of bolstering relations with Japan to deal with common security threats. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Yoon government has shown great interest in participating in both the fleet review and search and rescue exercise according to South Korean media reports.
“Whether we will be participating has not been decided yet. However, we are leaning towards sending our vessels.” – Yoon administration official.
Sending a ship to the fleet review could therefore mark a milestone in improving South Korea-Japan relations. Yoshihiro Inaba, Naval News Japan correspondent explains:
“The previous South Korean administration had a very poor security relationship with Japan, but there are signs of a turnaround in Japan-South Korea relations under the current administration, and it is hoped that the two countries will be aligned in their response to North Korea. In addition, it is important for Japan, the U.S., and South Korea to cooperate not only in dealing with North Korea but also with China, and it is certainly possible that the invitation to the Fleet review was made against this background.”
However, Yoon will likely face a public backlash if such a decision is made. This is because significant animosity exists between South Korea and Japan due to Japanese atrocities committed during the occupation of the former in the early 20th century.
This historical enmity has exhibited itself in maritime affairs in several different ways. One of the most important and symbolic issues in this regard is the use of the Flag of the Rising Sun. The flag, which many South Koreans view as being offensive, was used as the national flag of the Japanese Empire and is still used as the official ensign of the JMSDF.
This is why former President Park Geun-hye faced significant criticism when she sent ROKS Daejoyeong, a KDX-II destroyer, to partake in Japan’s 2015 fleet review. It is also the reason the JMSDF did not participate in South Korea’s fleet review held around the waters of Jeju island in 2018.
Domestic media outlets have pointed out that Yoon will face similar uphill challenges insofar as optics are concerned.
Many in Japan have very high expectations for the new South Korean government.
“President Yoon’s speech on August 15, in which he referred to the restoration of Japan-Korea relations, was widely reported [in Japan]. Bilateral and trilateral exercises between Japan and South Korea, including the United States, have themselves been conducted before the change of administration, and perhaps such opportunities may increase in the future. Already, after the recent RIMPAC, BMD exercise was conducted in Japan, the U.S., South Korea, Australia, and Canada.”
Yoshihiro Inaba, Naval News Japan correspondent
However, some remain critical. Several right-wing Japanese media outlets, including the Sankei Shimbun, stated that the South Korean military should reconsider its policy of allowing the use of fire control radar against Japanese surveillance aircraft if it is to participate in the fleet review. Implemented in 2019 following an incident the year before where a KDX-I destroyer, the ROKS Gwanggaeto the Great, used its fire control radar against a close-flying Japanese surveillance aircraft, the policy has become a veritable thorn in the thigh of South Korea-Japan naval cooperation.
The ruling party and JMSDF chief of staff Admiral Ryō Sakai have both expressed similar views:
“There is a need for South Korea and Japan to resolve the radar issue.” –
Admiral Ryō Sakai, JMSDF Chief of Staff
Whether any changes will be made remain to be seen. However, South Korean media reports have said that the Yoon administration is reviewing many of its policies towards Japan and is considering whether to change them.