The Yoon Suk-yeol government has decided to accept Japan’s invitation to the international naval event hosted by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced Thursday.
The international fleet review is set to take place on Nov. 6 in Sagami Bay, off Tokyo to celebrate the 70th founding anniversary of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The government of Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida invited the South Korean government to its international fleet review in January. But the Yoon government made a last-minute decision at the meeting of the standing committee of the presidential National Security Council on Thursday.
The Defense Ministry justified its decision citing the necessity to step up security cooperation with Japan and neighboring countries against mounting threats from North Korea.
“The Defense Ministry would like to underscore that the security implications of the South Korean Navy's participation in the international naval fleet has been considered a top priority in light of the grave security situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula caused by consecutive provocations by North Korea,” the ministry said.
The Yoon government sees fence-mending with Japan as indispensable for bilateral and trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan to counter and deter North Korea.
The decision was also made while comprehensively considering the history of the South Korean Navy participating in an international fleet review and related international customs, according to the Defense Ministry.
The South Korean government dispatched naval vessels to the Japanese fleet review in 2002 and 2015. But in 2019, the Japanese government refused to invite South Korea to a fleet review amid worsening bilateral ties.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force participated in the South Korean Navy’s international fleet review in 1998 and 2008. But Japan skipped an international fleet review in South Korea in 2018 in protest of the Moon Jae-in government’s request to avoid hoisting the flag Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force on a warship.
Despite the previous cases, the South Korean government had held off on the decision in light of domestic and foreign policy factors, including public sentiment here against the Rising Sun flag.
Anti-Japanese sentiment has been on the rise in South Korea mainly due to historical disputes, including sex slavery and wartime forced labor in the Japanese colonial era.
But the Yoon government does see that the flag -- which will be displayed by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force at the fleet review -- is analogous in appearance to the one used by the Japanese Imperial Army, a senior military official, who wished to remain anonymous, said during a press briefing.
The South Korean official said the two flags are not identical, elucidating that the flag of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is recognized by the international community, including China.
South Korea’s Navy will dispatch the fast combat support ship Soyang and 137 personnel to Japan’s international fleet review this year.
S. Korea highlights significance
South Korea’s Defense Ministry underscored that the South Korean Navy will join multilateral search and rescue exercises with Japan and 12 other countries that have confirmed their participation in Japan’s international fleet review, as of Wednesday.
The participating countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
South Korea’s 10,000-ton logistics support ship Soyang is set to enter a port in Yokosuka, Japan, on Tuesday and take part in the search and rescue exercises on Nov. 6 and 7.
South Korea’s Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Lee Jong-ho is set to participate in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Yokohama alongside navy chiefs of staff from around 30 countries during his visit to Japan next month.
Against that backdrop, the Defense Ministry expects that South Korea’s participation in the search and rescue exercises and the international forum will “serve as a good opportunity for the Navy to strengthen maritime security cooperation with neighboring countries and the international community as well as to promote friendly cooperation with the navies of friendly countries.”