South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had agreed to hold talks on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in England, but Japan unilaterally called the meeting off, citing the Dokdo issue, according to the Foreign Ministry on Monday.
The two countries had tentatively decided for Moon and Suga to have a pull-aside meeting on the fringes of the summit, which was held Friday through Sunday at Carbis Bay Hotel and Estate in Cornwall, southwestern England, according to a ministry official. South Korea was invited as a guest to this year’s Group of Seven wealthy democracies gathering, along with Australia, India and South Africa.
The official added that it was regrettable that Japan had not responded to the pull-aside plan, despite the fact that the two sides had agreed on it earlier at the working level. Japan called off the meeting to protest South Korea’s annual military drills on and around its easternmost islets of Dokdo in the East Sea, which are at the center of a decadeslong territorial dispute between the two countries.
The feud over Dokdo escalated recently after Japan identified the islets as part of Japan’s territory on the torch relay route map for the Tokyo Olympics, drawing heavy backlash from Seoul. South Korea has been in effective control of the islets since 1954, but Japan -- which calls the islets Takeshima -- insists they are Japanese territory.
South Korea plans to stage the annual drill this week. This could irk Tokyo further and strain bilateral relations, which are already at their lowest point in decades over economic and wartime history disputes.
Seoul has been seeking to defuse diplomatic tensions with Tokyo, which are rooted in Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and have morphed into an ongoing economic feud. This comes as the Biden administration pushes for tighter trilateral cooperation with its two Northeast Asian allies in the face of an assertive China and a defiant North Korea.
Moon has expressed willingness to meet Suga, and many observers saw the G-7 summit as a suitable occasion for the two leaders to meet at last. The two have not met in person since Suga assumed leadership last September, reflecting strained bilateral relations.
During the three-day summit, Moon and Suga “exchanged greetings” just before the start of an expanded session of the summit, according to Cheong Wa Dae. Moon and first lady Kim Jung-sook also talked for about a minute with their Japanese counterparts, Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga, at a reception hosted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. These short encounters were about it, with no official meeting or trilateral session with US President Joe Biden.
The two leaders also showed stark contrast in their reactions to the unfulfilled promise of talks.
Moon said on social media that his first face-to-face encounter with Suga had been a “precious occasion” that could serve as a new start for relations between South Korea and Japan. But he also said it was a shame that their exchange had not led to a follow-up meeting.
On the other hand, Suga was firm that no meeting with Moon would happen until the outstanding issues between the two countries were settled. According to Japanese media outlets, Suga stressed that South Korea needs to take steps to improve soured bilateral relations, adding that the dispute over compensation for victims of wartime forced labor and sexual slavery had not been resolved.
In regards to his moment with Moon, Suga said Moon had approached him at the venue and he had reciprocated as a diplomatic courtesy.
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com