In response to the heightening tension between the U.S. and North Korea, the Japanese government has been developing concrete plans to evacuate Japanese citizens living in South Korea should an emergency arise on the Korean Peninsula. While the government would like to have the option of deploying SDF airplanes and ships in addition to commercial fleets, the South Korean government has not shown willingness to discuss the possibility with its Japanese counterparts. The focus is on the extent to which the government will be able to encourage voluntary evacuation if only civilian fleets can be used to transport Japanese residents home, especially while the commercial companies continue to offer their regular service routes.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are some 57,000 Japanese nationals in South Korea (including tourists), most of whom are concentrated in Seoul; which is only a few dozen kilometers away from the Demilitarized Zone, within rage of North Korea’s missiles.
The Japanese government started developing emergency evacuation plans for South Korea in 1994, during the North Korean nuclear crisis. Since then, the plans have been updated to align with SDF law revisions, the most significant of which allowed for SDF airplanes and warships to be used for transporting Japanese evacuees. Currently, the National Security Council, Cabinet Secretariat, MOFA, and MOD regularly revisit the contingency plan.
The Japanese government’s plan is to charter vehicles to shuttle Japanese nationals to a southern airport or harbor, where chartered airplanes, ships, government planes, and SDF transport vessels will take them home. It also plans to request the help of American troops.
In order for the SDF to evacuate Japanese nationals from South Korean land, airspace, and territorial waters, however, it needs the South Korean government’s consent. “The Koreans have a strong antipathy toward the SDF,” explains one high-ranking MOFA official.
According to one Japan-South Korean relations expert, Japan has approached South Korea on the topic of evacuation on several occasions, but has failed each time to obtain cooperation. In early April, the Japanese Embassy in South Korea requested to discuss SDF involvement in evacuating Japanese citizens, but the Koreans rejected the proposal saying, “the likelihood of an emergency occurring is not very strong.”
“The key is to evacuate as many Japanese nationals as possible before an emergency occurs,” stresses one MOFA official. On April 11, MOFA posted “Spot Information” [information on a specific location or travel destination] on its website alerting Japanese living in South Korea of recent North Korean developments. The ministry will call for voluntary evacuation and raise the threat level if regional tensions escalate.