Could Japan intervene militarily on the Korean peninsula?

Posted on : 2015-09-22 15:47 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Seoul maintaining that even with recently passed defense laws in Japan, S. Korean consent is still required
 Tokyo correspondent)
Tokyo correspondent)

The debate over how far the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) would be able to intervene in an emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula is heating up after the Shinzo Abe administration passed security legislation on Sep. 19, giving Japan the right to exercise collective self-defense.

Information given by Abe at an Aug. 24 meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee suggests that Japan's new powers would not result in the sending of fighting units overseas because it does not represent a complete form of collective self-defense of the kind that allowed South Korea to send large numbers of troops to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The only scenario Abe gave of collective self-defense was a situation involving the Korean Peninsula, in which North Korea attacked a US AEGIS destroyer.

But is a JSDF landing on the peninsula really out of the question?

The answer is no. With last week's amendment of the 1997 Law on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan to the Law on Situations with Important Influence on Japan, Tokyo increased potential rear-area support recipients from the US alone to the US and other countries' armed forces. It also permitted forms of support such as ammunition supplies and fueling of fighter planes readying for takeoff, which had previously been banned as presenting the potential for identification with the use of force by the US. The concept of non-combat regions was significantly expanded to allow rear-area support from JSDF logistical units in regions in which no combat actions are currently taking place.

In other words, the new system in one in which JSDF logistical units could land in Busan or another region where no combat actions are currently taking place to provide rear-area support in a war on the peninsula where the South Korea and US armies are leading the fight. Japan's argument is that the JSDF would have to sign an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) to be able to provide support directly to South Korean forces along with US ones.

The situation hints that the US and Japan may begin applying greater pressure on South Korea to strengthen the countries' trilateral alliance.

Japan has included wording in Article 2-4 of its Law on Situations with Important Influence of Japan stating that rear-area support would be limited to situations with consent from foreign countries.

South Korean Minister of National Defense Han Min-koo attempted to allay fears during a parliamentary audit by the National Assembly Legislation and Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21.

Since operational control is such that the Combined Forces Commander acts in accordance with guidelines from the South Korean and US Presidents, [a JSDF landing] would be impossible without the South Korean President's consent, Han said.

But Han's remarks were merely a statement of principle. In reality, Seoul is likely to find itself unable to refuse a USFK request for an operationally necessary JSDF landing.

A bigger problem surfaces when South Korea and Japan differ in their positions. The biggest issue between Seoul and Tokyo right now involves the sort of situation described by Abe - and the question of whether Japan would require South Korea's consent to protect a US warship in the event of a North Korean attack. Seoul maintains that its consent would be required in situations involving the Korean Peninsula's security and South Korea's national interests. Japan has rejected that argument, with one former Defense Minister noting that North Korea is an independent state and United Nations member.

If Japan does intervene in a situation on the peninsula on collective self-defense grounds, the possibility cannot be ruled out that a potentially minor clash could escalate into a threat to East Asia as a whole.

Abe himself is currently asserting that Japan will not be sending JSDF fighting units overseas. It's unclear for how long that promise will be kept.

The Prime Minister claims that we are not sending troops overseas, but nowhere in the law is it clearly stated that 'we will not do that,' noted Councillor Toshio Ogawa in a Sept. 19 Q&A session.

Meanwhile, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party continues to push for a Constitutional amendment that would upend the existing Peace Constitution. This means Abe's interpretation of the law could change going ahead. It's a major potential headache for South Korea, which is in the position of having to improve relations with the North and achieve balanced diplomacy between China on one side and the US and Japan on the other.

By Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo correspondent and Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

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