Photo/IllutrationA photograph released on Jan. 24 by the South Korean National Defense Ministry as evidence of SDF patrol aircraft conducting a "threatening flight" (Provided by the South Korean National Defense Ministry)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The South Korean National Defense Ministry on Jan. 24 released photographic evidence to back its claim that a Japanese patrol aircraft conducted a “threatening flight” by flying dangerously close to its Navy vessel.

Tokyo quickly challenged Seoul’s assertion and reiterated that the flight operations were conducted appropriately at a safe altitude, adding new tension to the already soured bilateral relationship.

The ministry released five images said to capture the flight of a P-3C patrol aircraft belonging to the Maritime Self-Defense Force over a South Korean Navy destroyer on Jan. 23 in the East China Sea.

The ministry said the images were collected from the film and data captured by infrared cameras and radar from aboard the destroyer. It said one of the images was taken when the aircraft approached the ship at a distance of about 540 meters and 60 meters in altitude.

The ministry decided to release the images in response to Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya’s rebuttal, in which he claimed the SDF plane stayed higher than 150 meters in altitude and remained at least 500 meters from the destroyer.

Iwaya categorically denied the accusation from Seoul.

“Appropriate flight operations were conducted based on international and domestic laws,” he said.

A top official of the South Korean National Defense Ministry told reporters that "machines don't lie," in response to Iwaya.

The ministry initially planned to release a video as evidence instead of still photographs.

The South Korean government decided to “take strict action” after the flight issue was discussed at the National Security Council meeting held at the presidential office in Seoul on the same day.

A senior lawmaker of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party with expertise in foreign affairs made a proposal to abandon the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between the two countries, which is renewed annually.

Cooperation between the two countries on matters of national security is vital in order to respond to threats from North Korea, but the flight issue among other recent controversies has brought it to a standstill.

After South Korea publicly released the photos, Iwaya reiterated the Japanese government’s position and told reporters, “There was no intention nor reason to pose a threat against the South Korean destroyer."

A top official of the prime minister's office said, “(These photos) do not qualify as evidence. We have legitimate (evidence).”

Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of the Joint Staff Office, said at a news conference held the same day that according to SDF flight records, the patrol aircraft maintained a safe altitude and distance from the South Korean naval vessel.

The highest-ranking officer of the SDF said at present there is no plan to release such data because, “We want to avoid pointing fingers at each other with South Korea any further.”

In reference to South Korea’s claim that the aircraft approached the destroyer as close as 60 to 70 meters in altitude and 540 meters in distance, Kawano said that the plane was “at 150 meters or higher in altitude and more than 1,000 meters away” from the ship.

He did not disclose further details because he said, “It is inappropriate and meaningless” to do so.

Regarding South Korea’s claim that the SDF aircraft did not respond to warnings transmitted from the destroyer, Kawano revealed that the plane received calls from the Navy destroyer to cease its proximate flight. The SDF responded to the call and said, “The plane is flying at a safe altitude and safe distance based on international law and practice,” according to Kawano.

The two countries have also recently engaged in a similar controversy with Japan claiming that a South Korean Navy destroyer locked its fire-control radar on an MSDF P-1 patrol aircraft in December. Seoul has denied the allegation and claimed the aircraft was flying at a low altitude and interfering with the activities of the vessel.

(This article was written by Hajimu Takeda in Seoul, Shinichi Fujiwara and Hirotaka Kojo.)