So, things are looking pretty bad in South Sudan, where the UN is saying thousands are dead in communal violence that is threatening to tear the world’s newest nation apart.
If there was one potential bright side to genocidal ethnic strife, though, it was that it might have provided a golden opportunity for Korea and Japan to play nice with one another.
You see, Korea has 280 troops deployed as peacekeepers to the town of Bor. Things around Bor have gotten very bad—today in fact mortar rounds landed on the UN base the Koreans share with Indian and Nepalese peacekeepers, wounding several Nepalese troops. The Korean force—composed mostly of lightly armed engineering and medical units—felt they needed more ammo in case the shit hit the fan, so the unit commander asked the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for ammunition. And they got it in the form of 10,000 rounds from the Japanese SDF, which has 300 men deployed to the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
Great, you say—Korea and Japan are working together in the face of a common crisis. Might this be the start of a rapprochement?
Sadly, it appears not.
In fact, the Japanese supply of ammo to Korean troops in South Sudan now appears to be becoming, as they say, a diplomatic issue.
For starters, Seoul and Tokyo are putting out differing stories as to how this all went down. The Korean side says this was entirely a UN thing—the Korean commander put in a request to UNMISS command, and it just so happened that the only folk around using God-fearing 5.56 NATO rounds were the Japanese in Juba.
The Japanese, meanwhile, released on Tuesday a video of Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera receiving a report from the Japanese colonel in charge of the SDF forces in South Sudan. The SDF commander said the Korean colonel in charge of the Korean troops in Bor called the SDF unit directly to make an emergency request for ammo. He said the Korean colonel told him that 15,000 refugees were camped out around Bor, that the Koreans were the only troops defending the town, and the area was full of hostiles. He also said the Korean commander expressed his appreciation for the ammo shipment.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during a press conference the same day that the Korean government had made a request for ammo through the Korean embassy in Tokyo on Sunday.
The Korean side is now accusing the Japanese of politically using the emergency faced by Korean troops in South Sudan, with one unnamed official telling the Chosun Ilbo that the Abe government’s linking of the ammo supply to its “active pacifism” initiative was a “clear political provocation.” Another unnamed official said Korea had told the Japanese to handle this quietly out of fear that the locals would turn hostile and attack Korean troops if word got out that they’d received ammo, but the Japanese were instead turning this into a big story. Korean government officials are also saying that they intend to return all the ammo to Japan once Korean ammo arrives from Korea, despite the fact that the Japanese said they could keep it.
The Japanese side, meanwhile, is pissed off with the Koreans—and not without reason, IMHO—for not only being ungrateful, but brazenly so. The Hani says one exasperated high-ranking Japanese government official was crying, “How the heck can we hold a summit with a nation like Korea?” It also seems that a lot of the alleged “noise” Japan was making was not to show off what they were doing for the Koreans, but rather to fend off domestic criticism that Abe and Co. were using the crisis in South Sudan to break Japan’s long-standing self-imposed ban on weapon exports.
In an editorial, Ye Olde Chosun—sit down for this—criticizes Japan for acting as if Korea now supported the Abe government’s “active pacifism,” but at the same time blasted the Korean Defense Ministry for incompetence (the second rotation of Korean troops arrived in South Sudan in October with little in the way of arms, despite three months having passed since the South Sudanese president sacked his vice president, kicking off the current crisis) and the Park administration’s foreign policy making process (the Defense Ministry apparently made the decision to accept Japanese ammo on its own, with no larger discussion of the political ramifications).
For their part, Japanese newspapers don’t appear especially thrilled about the ammo supply, either, but for very different reasons. Both the Asahi and Mainichi think the Abe government have a lot more explaining to do. Says the Asahi:
At the end of the day, there are too many unclear points about this “exceptional case” to verify the appropriateness of the government’s decision.
For instance, we don’t know the circumstances under which the United Nations asked Japan for the ammo giveaway. The South Korean side said it did not request Japan’s help in desperation, but what, exactly, was the situation? And what sort of discussion did the newly created National Security Council have before it decided to provide the ammunition? The government needs to answer these questions in detail.
Any discrepancy between Seoul’s explanation and Tokyo’s could aggravate the already strained bilateral relationship. And down the road, Tokyo ought to disclose how the ammo was used.
The National Security Council, whose members include the prime minister and the defense minister, is a very small organization. If the government fails to tell the public how the council discussed the matter, it cannot expect to gain widespread understanding.
The last thing our country needs is for the Abe administration to get the SDF more deeply involved in international conflicts by letting the National Security Council call the shots and establish new precedents in the absence of any legal framework, and in the name of “proactive pacifism.”
For that matter, the Mainichi says even if the Koreans desperately needed ammo, the way the decision to give it to them was made was “unruly.”
Honestly, this is extremely frustrating. I admit when I first read a Yonhap report on the ammo shipment two days ago, my first reaction was “Holy shit, they’re getting ammo from who?”, but this was soon followed by optimism that this might provide an opportunity for the two sides to pretend they play for the same team for a change.
Alas, it seems I was wrong.
Meanwhile, Korea says it is not considering sending more troops to South Sudan, but is willing to review “all options” if the UN makes a request.