The Park Geun-hye government was slammed for allowing its peacekeepers in Africa to accept a loan of ammunition from Japan, even though it has bitterly complained about Tokyo’s efforts to build up its military.
Amid escalating violence in South Sudan, Korea’s 280-strong Hanbit Unit, dispatched on a peacekeeping mission earlier this year, was loaned 10,000 rounds of ammunition from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and another 5,017 rounds from the U.S. Africa Command.
More ammunition will be delivered by the Korean Air Force, according to the Ministry of National Defense, and after that delivery arrives the Korean unit will return the borrowed ammunition.
It was the first time Korean troops received weapons from Japan, and it was the first time Japan’s Self-Defense Forces provided ammunition to another country since World War II.
The Park government came under immediate fire for diplomatic blundering. Seoul has strongly accused the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe government of gross insensitivity to neighboring countries Japan brutalized before and during World War II in its current drive to beef up its military, which is supported by the United States.
Tokyo has declared it wants the right of “collective self-defense,” meaning it can come to the aid of an attacked ally. Seoul has objected to that. In a press conference Tuesday, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Col. Ko Dong-jun, commander of the Hanbit Unit, telephoned the Japanese force on Saturday night and asked for urgent assistance.
Calling it “an exceptional measure in an emergency situation,” Onodera said the Korean troops thanked the Self-Defense Forces in South Sudan for the assistance.
As bad publicity mounted about the situation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense denied that such an appeal was made.
“The Hanbit Unit asked for assistance to the United Nations, and the United Nations asked Japan for the supply,” said Cho Tae-young, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “There is nothing more to this story. Receiving ammunition has nothing to do with Japan’s push for the right of collective self-defense or its military buildup.”
The Defense Ministry also refuted Japan’s claim.
“The Hanbit Unit asked the UN Mission in South Sudan for ammunition, but it didn’t have the kind that our troops use,” Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the ministry, said yesterday. “They arranged for us to borrow from Japan, so we received it. Our working-level official contacted his counterpart in the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces, but Col. Ko never made a telephone call.”
Korean troops are armed with K-2 rifles, which use 5.56-milimeter bullets, and Japanese and U.S. forces were the only nearby units with significant reserves of these, the military said.
The Defense Ministry was also criticized for its slow response to the situation in South Sudan, which allowed Japan to make political capital out of the situation.
Substantial military violence has taken place since Dec. 15 in South Sudan, but the ministry took no measures to reinforce the safety of the noncombat Hanbit Unit, which are mostly engineers and medics. Japan, on the other hand, acted swiftly to supply the ammunition and told the media about it only 15 hours after it received a formal request.
The opposition Democratic Party yesterday criticized the Park government for unwittingly aiding Japan’s more assertive defense policy.
“The Hanbit Unit received ammunition from none other than Japan,” said Kim Han-gill, chairman of the Democratic Party. “This makes us question the lucidity of our foreign and defense affairs.”
“The government said it received ammunition through the United Nations, but why did it have to come from Japan?” asked DP spokesman Kim Kwan-young. “Japan is already calling it an act of proactive pacifism, trying to take advantage of it.
“It is undeniable that the latest situation supported Japan’s attempt to become a military superpower. We urge the government to make clear its position about this situation and to handle Korea-Japan military issues more wisely.”
The ruling Saenuri Party, however, defended the government.
“UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said receiving ammunition from Japan was appropriate for the Hanbit Unit to protect itself,” said Representative Yoo Il-ho, a party spokesman.
Meanwhile, a UN camp in South Sudan where the Hanbit Unit was stationed came under an attack, the military said yesterday. No injury or casualty was reported.
According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conflict between South Sudanese government forces and rebels intensified and two mortars struck a Nepalese camp about 300 meters (328 yards) away from the Korean unit on Tuesday. The multinational UN peacekeeping base is located in Bor, about 170 kilometers (105.6 miles) south of the African country’s capital of Juba.
BY SER MYO-JA, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]