Japan and South Korea are mired in a heated military spat over an encounter at sea last month between a South Korean warship and a Japanese maritime patrol plane. Tokyo claims that its aircraft was threatened by the South Korean ship’s targeting radar for surface-to-air weapons, a charge that Seoul flatly denies. Instead, it accuses the Japanese military of provocatively flying its planes at low altitudes.
The escalating feud is further straining an already tense bilateral relationship, as the two sides struggle to resolve difficult historical issues over Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea that have resurfaced in recent months. The United States, which has a history of stepping in to mediate between its two allies, appears to have made no such efforts so far in this case. If left unresolved, the latest row threatens to not only undermine military cooperation between Japan and South Korea, but also coordination on addressing the North Korean nuclear threat.
On Dec. 20, a Japanese P-1 maritime patrol aircraft was conducting a surveillance operation over the Sea of Japan. It was observing and documenting the activities of two South Korean warships operating in international waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. One of the South Korean vessels was a coast guard patrol craft aiding a North Korean fishing boat in distress; the other was a Republic of Korea Navy destroyer.