This is the third installment of a series.
“Make way immediately.” “We will use force.”
On Feb. 17, Japan, the United States and others conducted a drill at the Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Thailand to practice procedures to protect Japanese living in the country. Self-Defense Forces personnel armed with rifles raised their voices toward those who were obstructing the passage of people.
Since the security-related legislation came into force in March 2016, SDF personnel have been permitted to use arms to rescue Japanese living abroad. Until then, their activities were limited to transporting Japanese mainly using vehicles and airplanes.
In the drill, after clearing the obstruction, SDF personnel rushed to a temporary assembly point and transported the nationals in a van to an airport. SDF personnel protected the evacuees while escorting them on to an Air Self-Defense Force C-130 transport aircraft and a U.S. military aircraft, then the evacuees confirmed the procedures.
In the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, there is a high possibility that Seoul, which is densely populated, could be the target of attacks from North Korea.
How to evacuate about 57,000 Japanese nationals, including tourists, and an estimated more than 200,000 Americans and others from South Korea is a pressing issue.
The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation (see below) stipulates that both countries cooperate in the evacuation of noncombatants. Considering the case of an emergency, the drill was aimed at strengthening close cooperation between Japan and the United States.
The Japanese government classifies the risks concerning the evacuation of Japanese living in South Korea into four levels:
■ Urge Japanese nationals to avoid nonessential and non-urgent travel, such as sightseeing.
■ Discourage all types of travel.
■ Urge Japanese citizens in South Korea to evacuate.
■ Evacuate nationals to shelters and transport them.
The Japanese government intends to use commercial airplanes, including chartered jets, in a bid to evacuate as many Japanese in South Korea as possible before an emergency.
If North Korea were to attack South Korea, it is expected that airports in South Korea would close.
Narushige Michishita, a professor of security issues at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said: “If war was to start, there would be an immediate outbreak of artillery fire and missiles volleyed [at South Korea]. It is not realistic to evacuate to Japan.”
The Japanese government intends to evacuate Japanese citizens to shelters South Korea has designated across the country. If the situation is brought back under control within 72 hours or so after war has broken out, it plans to begin their repatriation.
However, protecting Japanese nationals overseas based on the security-related legislation can be realized only when the country concerned agrees to accept the SDF deployment. While Tokyo is sounding Seoul out to see if it will accept the possibility of SDF activities in South Korea, Seoul has been rejecting the idea, stating the South Korean people are sensitive about the SDF for historical reasons.
As the second best policy, the Japanese government plans to share roles for evacuation with the United States. Under the plan, it is widely believed that U.S. forces based in South Korea will transport by land Japanese and U.S. civilians to southern parts of South Korea, then carry them from Busan Port to Tsushima Island in Nagasaki Prefecture on vessels of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and helicopters of the Ground Self-Defense Force, in cooperation with U.S. military vessels. They are to be evacuated there temporarily and then transported to Kyushu by MSDF.
Although the South Korean side does not agree to the docking of MSDF vessels at South Korean ports, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, “Docking MSDF vessels alongside U.S. vessels at ports would be possible.”
The Japanese government has been steadily proceeding with preparation of the plan.
In early February, Kentaro Sonoura, a special adviser to the prime minister in charge of national security, visited the Kure Naval Base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, to inspect the Shimokita, an Osumi-type transport vessel, and confirm its capacity.
It is said that an Osumi-type vessel can carry about 2,000 people. It is likely the ship will be one of the main vessels to transport Japanese nationals in South Korea during an evacuation.
It is highly likely that an emergency on the Korean Peninsula could happen without advance notice, such as through a preemptive attack by the United States. Therefore, it may not be possible to complete evacuations before the outbreak of hostilities. The prior creation of a blueprint will determine the success of post-emergency evacuations.
“A plan to evacuate Japanese citizens is close to being compiled, but has yet to be completed. With inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summit meetings set, it’s necessary to complete the plan while the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains calm,” said a source with links to the Japanese government.
■ Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation
The guidelines, which specify the roles of the SDF and U.S. military, were compiled in 1978 for the first time in preparation for a possible invasion of Japan by the former Soviet Union. It was revised in 1997 based on the prospect of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, and was revised again in 2015. In addition to how to deal with contingencies, the guidelines are a framework for the Japan-U.S. cooperation in a wide range of fields, including international peace cooperation activities and disaster relief support.
Based on situations involving North Korea and China, the new guidelines specify the establishment of a “seamless Japan-U.S. cooperation” from peacetime to emergency