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No breakthrough in sight for Seoul-Tokyo ties after summit called off

Flags of Japan and South Korea (123rf)
Flags of Japan and South Korea (123rf)
 
President Moon Jae-in’s last-minute decision not to visit Japan has dashed hopes that the upcoming Tokyo Olympics might offer the bickering neighbors an occasion to make a breakthrough in their relations, which have been at their lowest ebb in decades.
 
Moon expressed disappointment after calling off a trip to Japan that may have included his first summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, his senior aide said Tuesday.
 
Park Soo-hyun, Moon’s press secretary, said in an interview with local radio station TBS that Moon was “very disappointed” after it was decided that he wouldn’t be heading to Japan later this week.
 
“Despite the situation, I hope the leaders of the two countries will meet at some time,” Moon was quoted by Park as saying, adding that the president called for working-level consultations to continue so they could lead to future talks.
 
But with the two sides still remaining miles apart on key issues -- including wartime history and export controls -- coupled with public outcry following a Japanese diplomat’s vulgar remarks against Moon, no breakthrough appears within sight, observers say.
 
On Monday, Moon decided not to visit Tokyo during the Summer Olympics, where it was hoped that an in-person meeting with Suga could occur. Cheong Wa Dae said it felt there was insufficient chance that a visit would yield a successful outcome, and also cited “other circumstances,” apparently referring to improper comments by a Japanese diplomat.
 
Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Korea, had allegedly told a South Korean reporter that Moon’s efforts to improve ties with Tokyo were unrequited, likening the overtures to masturbating, according to a report by a local cable news channel.
 
Soma’s indecent remarks appear to have tipped the balance in Cheong Wa Dae’s final decision for Moon to skip a visit to Japan at the last minute.
 
A Cheong Wa Dae official said it had to consider the public sentiment and the internal mood of the presidential office, which turned “skeptical” following the report.
 
When asked whether Soma’s remark influenced Moon’s decision, First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun on Tuesday said it acted as a “significant obstacle” to the president’s trip to the Japanese capital.
 
Moon had expressed a willingness to meet with Suga in order to defuse diplomatic tensions with Tokyo, which are rooted in Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and that have morphed into the ongoing economic feud.
 
The Joe 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.
 
With the Olympics approaching, the two countries have been discussing for weeks to fine-tune the summit agenda. But they remained at odds over the format and length of a possible meeting, as well as the agenda.
 
Park said suggested items on the table included the feud over wartime history, Japan’s export restrictions against Korea and Tokyo’s planned discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima power plant into the Pacific Ocean, in another interview with KBS.
 
“There has been considerable progress, but it still fell short,” said Park. 
  
Reports say while South Korea had put resolving the export restriction issue as the priority of the summit, Japan was insistent that Seoul come up with a solution on the wartime forced labor and sex slavery issues first for the talks to happen.
 
Compensation for Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula has been one of the major sticking points in the strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
 
In October 2018, Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese firms should pay compensation for the use of Korean workers during World War II, drawing strong rebuke from Tokyo, which says related issues were settled under a 1965 agreement.
 
In apparent retaliation, Tokyo imposed export restrictions on Korea that it has still not entirely retracted.
 
No summit has taken place between the two leaders since Suga assumed office in September last year. 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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