Just in case, Japanese officials weigh evacuation options for nationals in South Korea
By THE JAPAN NEWS/YOMIURI Published: April 21, 2017
TOKYO — In response to mounting tensions between the United States and North Korea, the government is studying concrete plans for evacuating Japanese nationals from South Korea in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.
However, despite Tokyo's aim to dispatch aircraft and vessels from the Self-Defense Forces in addition to commercial planes, ships and other transport means in such a situation, Seoul has shown no intention of discussing the issue with the Japanese government.
With a limited transportation capacity, the focus is now on how far the government can go in its efforts, including whether it can urge the voluntary return of Japanese nationals while commercial planes and other transportation are still operating normally.
According to the Foreign Ministry, there are about 57,000 Japanese nationals in South Korea, including residents and travelers. Seoul, where Japanese nationals concentrate, is only tens of kilometers from the military demarcation line with North Korea. The South Korean capital is believed to be within range of the massive amount of North Korean rocket artillery deployed along the border.
In the wake of the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, the government began studying methods to evacuate Japanese nationals from South Korea in the event of an emergency. The Self-Defense Forces Law was revised after the crisis to allow the SDF to use aircraft and ships to transport Japanese nationals, and the evacuation plans were subsequently updated several times. The National Security Council, Cabinet Secretariat, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and other governmental institutions continue to regularly update the plan.
The government is considering a plan in which Japanese nationals are taken to airports and ports in the southern part of South Korea by chartered vehicles and other modes of conveyance, then returned to Japan on chartered aircraft and ships as well as government planes and SDF transport vessels. The government also plans to ask for the cooperation of the U.S. military.
The SDF needs Seoul's consent to evacuate Japanese nationals inside South Korean territory, waters and airspace. However, such consent seems unlikely in light of what one senior foreign ministry official calls the "deep-rooted hostility toward the SDF" in South Korea.
According to a diplomatic source, the Japanese government had asked for talks regarding the evacuation of Japanese nationals, but South Korea rejected them. The South Korean government also rejected a request in early April by the Japanese Embassy in South Korea to hold talks about using the SDF to evacuate Japanese nationals, saying, "The possibility of an emergency situation is not high."
As a result, the senior foreign ministry official said, "The key is how many Japanese nationals can be evacuated before the situation evolves into an emergency." The Foreign Ministry on April 11 posted on its website information about North Korea to promote the awareness of Japanese nationals in South Korea. If the situation intensifies, the government intends to call for voluntary evacuations, and also to consider raising the threat level.