|A fleet of vessels from the Korean Navy takes part in a rehearsal for the International Fleet Review off the coast of the nation's southern resort island of Jeju, Tuesday, a day before the Navy begins the five-day-long global fleet review there. / Courtesy of Republic of Korea Navy|
By Lee Min-hyung
The Navy's international fleet review got off to a contentious start Wednesday off the coast of the nation's resort island of Jeju amid an ongoing diplomatic tension between Seoul and Tokyo, as the latter recently decided not to send a warship under the "Rising Sun" flag in the wake of fierce opposition from Korea.
Nineteen vessels from 12 countries plan to participate in the five-day review. Japan was also supposed to dispatch its warship flying the "Rising Sun" flag which Koreans view as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression.
This is the third time the Korean Navy has held the review since 1998, once every ten years.
But Seoul flatly asked Tokyo not to fly its "Rising Sun" flag on a warship as people in South Korea view the red-and-white flag as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression and its colonization. Cheong Wa Dae received about 250 petitions for the Japanese ship to be barred.
Last week, Japan notified the Korean Navy that it would not send its warship. South Korea's relationship with Japan has long been strained by massive resentment over its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, continued island disputes and the issue of comfort women forced to work in Japan's wartime brothels.
Korea and Japan are expected to seek ways to alleviate the diplomatic tension in the wake of the recent controversy. But both sides avoided a possible worst-case scenario, as Japan would send its delegation despite the lack of its warship.
"Seoul and Tokyo failed to narrow their differences on the 'flag controversy,' but our view is that the dispute should not have a negative ensuing effect on their bilateral diplomatic relations," a military official said.
On Wednesday, the Korean Navy said China would also not send its fleet to the event because of the country's "internal reasons."
"China has in recent days hinted at the possibility that the country may not send its warship to the event, and the country decided not to dispatch its fleet in the end," said the official.
"Beijing did not specify why the country decided not to send its fleet to the International Fleet Review," he said, declining to comment further.
On October 11, President Moon Jae-in will visit the island where he plans to board the Navy's 4,900-ton ship named Ilchulbong.
Calls have grown for the Korean Navy to change the vessel to the Dokdo amphibious landing ship, named after the nation's easternmost islets of Dokdo, as part of a countermeasure against Japan's earlier determination to join the event by flying the controversial flag.
This is because the two countries have engaged in a heated territorial dispute over the small islets for which the latter claims sovereignty.
But with Japan dropping its earlier plan, the controversy is showing signs of slowly abating here.
Meanwhile, the world's naval powerhouses ― such as the United States and Russia ― have taken part in the review. In particular, the U.S. dispatched three vessels ― including the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear-powered supercarrier.
According to the Navy, this year's review is the largest in scale, compared with the previous two hosted by the Navy.
A group of 46 countries from across the globe has sent their naval delegations to join the global event on Jeju, the Navy said.
On October 12, the Korean Navy plans to hold the Western Pacific Naval Symposium with its overseas counterparts, seeking ways to tighten their naval alliance.