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International Relations

South Korea naval event leaves Japan out after flag row

Dispute over wartime ensign risks weakening united front in North Korea talks

The rising sun has been the Maritime Self-Defense Force's ensign since 1954, but opposition to it is growing in South Korea as a symbol for Japanese wartime aggression.   © AP

SEOUL -- In a sign of fraying ties between Seoul and Tokyo, South Korea on Thursday began hosting a naval review involving vessels from 12 other countries without Japan's participation, after a row over the use of a flag used during World War II, a development that risks complicating U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea.

"The Korean Peninsula is in a ceasefire," said South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the international fleet review held in waters off the southern island of Jeju. "The South and the North have now pledged to end their military confrontation and begun a journey toward complete denuclearization and lasting peace."

The South Korean navy has long promoted security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan to prepare for threats from North Korea. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was present at Thursday's exercise, but Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force ships were not. China had also pulled out of the event on Wednesday.

Tokyo canceled plans to partake in the review because of South Korea's opposition to the rising sun flag, which MSDF vessels are required to fly under domestic law. South Korea had invited Japan to the event but requested that participating countries hoist their national banners during the exercise, while Tokyo insisted that it would use the MSDF ensign.

Seoul, meanwhile, applied pressure by suggesting that Moon view the event on board the amphibious assault ship "Dokdo," named after islets administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan as Takeshima.

South Korean resistance has grown in recent years toward the rising sun symbol, which it has called a "war-crime flag." Progressives and conservatives have been united in their opposition to the banner, which flew at naval reviews on the country's waters in 1998 and 2008.

Public opinion could interfere with bilateral cooperation should the rising sun flag become a point of contention for the two countries in the future, such as during joint military exercises.

North Korean media has commented on Japan's absence from the event.

"The Rising Sun flag is a criminal banner that was used during brutal invasions of our country and other Asian nations, by the Japanese imperialists who cried out for the 'conquest of East Asia' in the 20th century," the ruling Workers' Party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun wrote Monday.

The U.S. and Japan believe that strong military and economic pressure on North Korea has brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Moon, meanwhile, has only passively cooperated with Japan on security matters and leaned toward reconciliation with the North. There is concern that such a stance may actually weaken U.S. bargaining power at denuclearization talks.

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