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In wake of vulgar remarks, Japan’s No. 2 diplomat in Korea returns home

Hirohisa Soma (Yonhap)
Hirohisa Soma (Yonhap)
Japan’s No. 2 diplomat in South Korea has returned home after causing a stir with remarks disparaging President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to improve relations between the bickering neighbors, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.

Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, has been criticized both in Seoul and Tokyo after telling a Korean reporter last month that Moon’s reconciliatory efforts were unrequited, likening the overtures to “masturbating.”

The remarks that came a week before the Tokyo Olympics kicked off has been cited as one of the reasons behind Moon’s decision not to visit Japan.

“He has been recalled home as of Aug. 1 but no position has yet been assigned,” an official from the ministry told reporters.

The official, however, declined to confirm whether the relocation was part of punitive measures against his inappropriate remarks.

“Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi made the order to put the right man in the right place and his term was also considered,” the official added.

Japanese diplomats are relocated every two years and they usually get promoted after serving in Seoul. Soma was appointed to the No. 2 position at the Seoul embassy in July 2019.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry announced three personnel reshuffles over the past week, but Soma was not included in those lists.

Observers say how the Japanese government handles the diplomatic mishap will show Japan’s attitude toward its ties with Korea, which have been at their lowest ebb in decades.

On the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics, both governments had sought to arrange the first summit between Moon and Suga, but related talks fell apart at the last minute.

At the time, Seoul’s presidential office said it felt there was insufficient chance that a visit would yield a successful outcome, and also cited “other circumstances,” apparently referring to Soma’s improper comments.

Cheong Wa Dae sources say the Korean government wanted to make a breakthrough in one of their outstanding issues, especially Japan’s export restrictions on chip and display materials, but Japan was reluctant to resolve the issues during the summit.

Moon has sent diplomatic overtures to Suga since the Japanese prime minister assumed office in September last year, but the response has been lukewarm so far. Japan has reiterated that Seoul should come up with a solution to stop recurring compensation claims by Korean victims of forced labor and sex slavery during Japan’s colonial rule in 1910-45.

Moon and Suga met in person for the first time during the Group of 7 Summit in the UK in June, but their several encounters did not lead to a summit. The last summit between the two countries was in December 2019, when Moon held talks with Suga‘s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, in China.

By Lee Ji-yoon (