Moon’s about-face dents hopes of thaw in Japan-ROK ties

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s decision not to visit Japan for the Tokyo Olympics has dented chances of an improvement in bilateral ties. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Moon had been expected to have their first in-person summit during the visit.

After the announcement on Monday that Moon had scrapped plans to visit Japan, Suga indicated that he would continue to seek ways to improve bilateral relations.

“The South Korean side said it hoped for the success of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics when it made the announcement. I think it’s important to note that,” Suga said to reporters at the prime minister’s office.

The two countries have not held an official summit since December 2019 because of outstanding issues regarding former so-called comfort women and South Korean court rulings on former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, among others.

The Japanese government had hoped the summit would lead to a thaw in relations even if it did not produce any concrete results and play a part in Olympic diplomacy, which has been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese government believes Seoul hardened its position after the publication of controversial remarks made by the deputy chief of mission of Japan to South Korea Hirohisa Soma to local media. Soma, who reportedly characterized Moon’s stance on Japan as “self-righteous” and “masturbatory,” was swiftly removed from his post.

“Until Sunday, there had been a 90% chance of [the summit] taking place, but the atmosphere changed drastically on Monday,” said a senior Japanese government official.

A priority for Seoul is getting Japan to lift tough export controls. According to a South Korean government official, the Moon administration had hoped to win a concession during the summit.

The Moon administration might have thought it would be able to suppress criticism of Japan in South Korea if it could achieve a result on export controls, even if it had to compromise to a certain extent on such issues as former requisitioned workers.

However, Japan has maintained its position that South Korean court rulings ordering the Japanese government to pay compensation to former so-called comfort women and Japanese companies to pay compensation to the former requisitioned workers are both in violation of international law.

A senior Foreign Affairs Ministry official said South Korea must comply with international law before bilateral relations can improve.

According to a South Korean government official, Seoul on Monday scrapped plans for the summit as it did not expect to win a concession from Japan on the export control issue.