SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Thursday reiterated a demand that Japan should remove its “rising sun” naval flag from a warship participating in an international fleet review at Jeju island next week.
Many South Koreans associate the symbol with Japanese military aggression during World War II and have expressed anger over the potential display of the alleged "war-crime flag" during the Oct. 10-14 event.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Thursday said Japan should be more considerate about how South Koreans remember its brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula before the end of the war.
South Korea's navy has asked all 14 countries participating in the fleet review to display only their national flags and the South Korean flag on their vessels, a request apparently aimed at preventing the invited Japanese destroyer from flying the "kyokujitsuki." The Foreign Ministry also conveyed Seoul's position to Tokyo through diplomatic channels.
But Japan has balked at the demand, with then-Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera saying last week that the ship's display of the red-and-white flag would be mandatory under Japan's laws. The flag also serves to identify the nationality of Japanese naval vessels under international maritime law, he said. Onodera was replaced by Takeshi Iwaya in a Cabinet reshuffle this week.
The flag, portraying a red disc with 16 rays extending outward, has been used as the ensign of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force since its launching in 1954.
When asked whether South Korea could raise the issue of Japan’s usage of the flag with the United Nations, Kang said her ministry will review the “possible and appropriate options” before deciding whether to take stronger international action.
"We have conveyed our stance that Japan should sufficiently consider our people's sentiment toward the rising-sun flag and our historical experience," Kang said.
It's questionable whether any South Korean attempt to ban Japan from using the flag would be successful. Some experts say it would be difficult to equate the kyokujitsuki with Nazi symbols such as the swastika, as many South Koreans do, because the Japanese usage of the rising-sun symbol long predates World War II.
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo acknowledged to lawmakers on Monday that there's not much the country can do under "international custom" if Japan insists on displaying the rising-sun flag on the vessel coming to Jeju.
South Korea’s navy on Thursday denied a local report that it was considering having President Moon Jae-in board a South Korean warship named after the disputed eastern islets of Dokdo during the fleet review in hopes of nudging Japan to voluntarily withdraw from the event. The rocks are occupied by South Korea but are also claimed by Japan, which calls them Takeshima.
Japanese naval vessels flew rising-sun flags during fleet reviews in South Korea in 1998 and 2008. But next week's fleet review comes amid heightened anti-Japanese sentiment, partially fueled by bitterness over a 2015 agreement between the countries to settle a long-standing row over Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery.
Some South Koreans also see Japan's conservative government as failing to sufficiently support South Korea's diplomatic push to improve relations with North Korea following a period of animosity over the North's nuclear and missile tests.
Hundreds of protesters on Wednesday expressed anger over Japanese plans to bring the rising-sun flag to the fleet review during a weekly rally in Seoul denouncing sexual slavery by Japan's World War II military.
A ruling party lawmaker has even proposed a bill banning the symbol on ships and aircraft entering South Korea and also at concerts and sports events. Internet users have filed more than 150 online petitions to the office of President Moon, asking him to stop the Japanese destroyer from coming to the island.
"Tell this to (Japanese Prime Minister) Abe: They will not be able to come with the rising-sun flag," shouted Kim Bok-dong, a 92-year-old sexual slavery victim, during Wednesday's rally. "Tell him to be careful. Do you think we will just sit aside and let them do it?"
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.