SEOUL -- A comment by Japan's defense minister that the country's Self-Defense Forces could act unilaterally in North Korea in an emergency has roused anger south of the border, since South Korea's constitution counts the country's northern neighbor as part of its territory.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani reportedly said in a meeting with South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo on Tuesday that South Korea's sovereignty applies only south of the armistice line dividing it from North Korea.
The South Korean constitution forbids the SDF from entering North Korean territory without approval from Seoul, South Korean National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin told the National Assembly on Friday in response to a question about the remark. A top official in the ruling Saenuri Party said at a party meeting that North Korea is undeniably South Korean territory and that Seoul must communicate this fact clearly to Tokyo.
Japan is not the only one coming in for criticism. A representative of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the largest opposition party, took aim at Han, saying "the scramble to conceal the comments was humiliating" and pushing for the censure of top officials.
In response to the eruption of public anger, the National Defense Ministry spoke to South Korean reporters on Thursday. South Korea and Japan had promised not to make Nakatani's comments public, and Japan regrets breaking the pledge, the defense ministry said. A ministry source said that Nakatani has sent an apology for causing such an uproar.
At a meeting of ruling and opposition party representatives on Thursday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that agreements between the U.S. and Japan, and between Washington and Seoul, require the other party's consent for military action. By the same token, the SDF cannot set foot on the Korean Peninsula without Seoul's say-so, she argued.
Japan's government has not ruled out the possibility of attacking overseas bases if required to defend the country, such as in the event of a missile launch by North Korea. Treating North Korea as part of South Korea -- and thus needing a green light from Seoul to act in the north -- could interfere with the military's ability to perform its duties, a top Japanese Defense Ministry official said.