Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Tokyo Olympics unable to heal Japan-South Korea rift

Seoul had been hoping that the opening ceremony of the games might be an opportunit­y to rebuild damaged bilateral relations. But an inappropri­ate comment and historical disagreeme­nts have put a stop to that.


Hopes that Japan and South Korea might finally be able to build new bridges through a summit of their leaders on the sidelines of the Tokyo Olympic Games have been dashed after Seoul announced that President Moon Jae-in would not be going to the opening ceremony on Friday.

The northeast Asian neighbors have long been at loggerhead­s over differing interpreta­tions of their shared history, most notably during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 through 1945, but bilateral ties have worsened since Moon became president in 2017.

A series of legal claims by former forced laborers and "comfort women" — the euphemisti­c term for women forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese military during the occupation — has deepened the already entrenched nationalis­t factions on both sides of the divide, leaving no room for compromise.

That deepening chasm has caused alarm in Washington, which traditiona­lly sees Japan and South Korea as its two most important security allies in the region. Since coming to power in January, US President Joe Biden has put pressure on both Moon and the administra­tion of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to put their difference­s aside in order to present a united front to the challenges posed by an increasing­ly belligeren­t China and an unpredicta­ble and nuclear-armed North Korea.

Tepid response from Japan

South Korea had, in recent weeks, indicated that Moon would be willing to travel to Tokyo if his Japanese counterpar­t would agree to a summit during which issues of substance might be addressed and solutions reached. Japan's reaction, however, was lukewarm.

"The Biden administra­tion has struggled to get Seoul and Tokyo to prioritize shared geopolitic­al concerns," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of internatio­nal studies at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul, told DW. "The Olympics should have been a reconcilia­tory action-forcing event for the feuding US allies. Instead, South Korea-Japan relations have worsened because of a sequencing problem."

"The Moon administra­tion wanted a summit to disentangl­e historic issues from contempora­ry trade and security cooperatio­n," Easley said. "But the Suga government expected South Korea to first address its domestic court cases over wartime compensati­on so the legal foundation of bilateral exchanges could be restored."

South Korean court cases over compensati­on for historical

wrongs are a "line in the sand" for Suga, who has attempted to put the burden of a solution entirely onto Seoul, the professor explained.

"This mismatch produced a series of diplomatic insults and failure to arrange a Moon-Suga summit during the Tokyo Olympics," he said.

Lewd remark the final straw The final straw for Seoul, however, appears to have been a deeply undiplomat­ic comment from the deputy head of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

During a lunch meeting with a South Korean reporter last week, Hirohisa Soma said Moon's efforts to improve relations with Tokyo while Japan attempted to successful­ly host the Olympics and deal with the pandemic amounted to "masturbati­on."

Seoul lodged an official protest, and the Japanese government has confirmed that it will replace Soma for his comments. The damage was done, however, and the South Korean Blue House announced on Monday that Moon would not be going to Tokyo, with a government spokesman confirming that Soma's comments had been a "significan­t obstacle" to the diplomatic move.

Korean media has been strongly critical of Japan's perceived indifferen­ce to Seoul's olive branch, with the Joong-Ang Daily accusing Tokyo of "high-handedness" and creating a "negative environmen­t."

'Face history squarely'

In an editorial, The Korea Times

demanded that Japan "face up to its history squarely and make sincere efforts to build trust with Korea."

Media in Japan have reported that Moon has canceled his trip, but are far more focused on the Olympics and rising coronaviru­s numbers. Those two issues are also likely to be the government's primary concerns just days before the opening ceremony.

"Suga is desperate for the games to be a success, both because Japan is the host nation and as he is facing an election before the end of the year and will be hoping for a positive response at the polls if everything goes off smoothly," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

"For Japan, the absolute priorities are closer to home than the disagreeme­nts with South Korea, for which he is unlikely to win any public support, especially if he is seen to be giving in to pressure from Seoul," she said.

Suga is also acutely aware that Moon's administra­tion will come to an end next spring, Murakami said. "A lot of people in Japan are just waiting for a government that they feel it is difficult to work with to leave office in the hope that they are better able to negotiate with whoever comes in next," he added.

Strategic patience

Easley agrees that Japan is exercising strategic patience in the anticipati­on that bilateral relations might cool down and experience a new start next year.

"Moon seeks a compromise with Japan but hasn't made much progress on the domestic politics of the issue, so Tokyo may wait until after elections in Japan and South Korea to deal with Moon's successor," he said.

And the outlook is not entirely bleak, he added, as the two government­s are still clearly talking about issues of shared concern.

"South Korea-Japan ties are severely strained but not irreparabl­y damaged," he emphasized. "Much cooperatio­n continues, including frequent trilateral meetings with the United States to coordinate foreign policies."

On Tuesday, Tokyo and Seoul agreed to continue efforts to resolve the issues that have caused the rift. Senior diplomats from the two nations also met in Tokyo on Wednesday with their US counterpar­t to discuss regional and global matters.

 ??  ?? President Moon Jae-in will not be attending Friday's opening ceremony
President Moon Jae-in will not be attending Friday's opening ceremony

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