South Korea’s Moon Halts Tokyo Olympic Trip as Tensions Rise

President Moon Jae-in called off a possible trip to Tokyo for the start of the Olympics this week in the wake of a Japanese diplomat making contentious comments about the policies of the South Korean president.

Moon’s office said Monday the president would not be going to Tokyo. The trip was planned for Friday and would have included a summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, in what be the first formal discussions between the two and the first summit between the neighbors since December 2019.

Seoul and Tokyo “held meaningful discussions about the bilateral historical issues as well as future-oriented cooperation measures,” South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for public communication Park Soo-hyun said in a statement Monday. “Although the discussions between the two sides were conducted in a friendly atmosphere and there was a considerable amount of understanding, it was still insufficient to be regarded as the outcome for what would result in a summit,” Park said.

The rift between the countries that host the bulk of U.S. troops in Asia shows the difficulties President Joe Biden faces in mending frayed ties between the neighbors, who are key to securing supply chains for items in the U.S.’s wider strategic fight against China. Biden has also sought their help as he undertakes a new strategy to end North Korea’s nuclear program, which he has called a serious threat to the U.S. and the world.

Moon and Suga were looking to discuss issues such as Koreans conscripted to work at Japanese factories during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula and women trafficked in Imperial Army brothels, the Yomiuri said.

‘Inappropriate’ Comments

The move by Moon comes after Japan’s ambassador to South Korea reprimanded his deputy Hirohisa Soma for “extremely inappropriate” comments made with regard to the president, the embassy said over the weekend. The deputy said in a meeting with local reporters that Moon was in a battle with himself over ties with Japan, using a sexually explicit term, Kyodo News reported, and the embassy has not disputed media accounts of the comments.

Moon’s government has pressed Tokyo to show what it believes is proper contrition over the historical issues and supported decisions by South Korean courts in recent years that ordered compensation for conscripted workers. Japan has said all claims were “settled completely and finally,” as a part of a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between the two countries and has called some of the legal proceedings a violation of international law.

Suga hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for meeting Moon, only exchanging greetings with him on the sidelines of the Group of Seven Summit in June in Cornwall, after speculation the two would hold a formal discussion. Suga later said there couldn’t be progress unless Seoul changed its ways on wartime labor issues.

Moon has been seeking the meeting to coincide with the Olympics, the Yomiuri reported in June, looking to raise issues of history before his term as leader ends in less than a year. The Tokyo Olympics are being held without spectators due to the coronavirus and the number of foreign leaders is being kept to a minimum to stem any possible spread of infections.

Tensions between the two also flared in recent days after Olympic officials called for South Korea to take down banners placed at the village for athletes in Tokyo that made reference to a 16th century war between Japan and Korea on the grounds they violated a ban on political messages at the games.

Despite the difficulties, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is set to meet her counterparts from Japan and South Korea for three-way discussions Tuesday in Tokyo.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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