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Moon not visiting Japan for summit with Suga

President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in has decided not to visit Japan for a summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga timed with the Summer Olympics this week, Cheong Wa Dae said Monday, after lewd remarks by a Japanese diplomat regarding Moon sparked fresh tension amid already strained diplomatic ties between the two countries. 

The last-minute announcement comes as the two countries have been discussing Moon’s possible visit to the Japanese capital to attend the Olympics that kicks off on Friday. 

Park Soo-hyun, senior Cheong Wa Dae secretary for public communication, said the two sides “had meaningful discussions on progress regarding historical issues and future-oriented cooperation.” But while the consultations reached a significant level of mutual understanding, the office said the summit talks was not likely to result in any significant accomplishment, he added. 

In addition, various circumstances have been considered, he said, without elaborating. 

“As Tokyo Olympics is the global festival of peace, we hope Japan holds a safe and successful Olympics,” said Park. 

Up until the afternoon, the door on Moon’s visit still seemed to be left open. But the final decision appears to reflect a consideration of the heightened calls from politicians and members of the public who opposed the trip. 

Yomiuri Shimbun also reported early this morning that Moon would head to Japan and will hold first in-person bilateral talks with Suga on Friday. The report said the two were looking to discuss issues that have been major sources of tension between the two countries, such as “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II and wartime forced laborers. 

Last Friday, a local cable news channel reported that Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Korea, had allegedly told a South Korean reporter that Moon was in a tug-of-war with only himself in dealing with Japan, describing it as “masturbating.” He added that Japan had “no space to care much about Seoul-Tokyo relations” at the moment. 

The vulgar remark stirred uproar here, with South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun summoning Japanese Ambassador to Korea Koichi Aiboshi the next day to protest, and called on the Japanese government to take tangible steps to prevent a recurrence of such situation. 

On Monday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said during a regular briefing that Soma’s remarks were “inappropriate as a diplomat” and that the government felt it was “very regrettable.” 

When asked about a Yomiuri report that the Japanese government had decided to dismiss Soma from his post, Kato said he would leave it up to the foreign minister to make a decision. 

The comments come as 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. 

The Biden administration is also pushing for tighter trilateral cooperation with its two Northeast Asian allies in the face of an assertive China and a defiant North Korea.

After a failed meeting with Suga on the sidelines of the G-7 summit last month, the Moon administration hoped the upcoming Olympics would be a suitable occasion for the bickering neighbors to make a breakthrough in their ties that have hit their lowest ebb in decades. 

Japan has been reluctant to meet with Moon, calling on Seoul to first come up with a changed stance on the wartime issues. Suga seemed to have a slight change in tune when he recently said that he would receive Moon with diplomatic courtesy should the Korean president visit Japan.

No summit has taken place between the two leaders since Suga assumed office last September. The last summit between the two countries was in December 2019, when Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe held talks with Moon in China.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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