Why Won’t the South Korean President Go to Tokyo?

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The author has repeatedly told his readers about the complexities of Japan-ROK relations and the role that militant nationalism and President Moon’s policies play in them. Here’s another story of how, on the eve of the Olympics, the South Korean President, pinned down by the situation, made an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation and how it shattered against the previously built-in walls.

In the run-up to the Olympics, South Korea was active in spreading rumors about its dangers due to a coronavirus rampage or the radioactive consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. At the same time, Japan had hurt Seoul by marking the Dokdo Islands as Japanese territory on a map showing the route of the Olympic torch relay that was posted on the official Tokyo Olympics website. The ruling party and the activists it fostered demanded a boycott, greed, and pride fought. Still, on June 21, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hwang Hee said that “despite Japan’s renewed territorial claims to the Dokdo Islands in the East Sea, no boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games is considered.”

On June 22, Kyodo Tsushinsha news agency quoted diplomatic sources saying that Tokyo was in talks with Seoul over President Moon Jae-in’s possible visit to Japan during the Olympics. It turns out that in early June, the South Korean side informed the Japanese government of Moon Jae-in’s intention to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics as a response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s presence at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony in February 2018.

Then other Japanese media began to write about it, which caused discontent of the Blue House and statements by its representatives that Tokyo is using Korea to solve Japan’s internal problems. In fact, the issue was that Seoul was planning not only Moon’s ceremonial visit to the opening of the Olympics but also a summit between the two leaders, which was supposed to end the trade war in which Seoul seems to be losing.

Although Moon talked a lot about the ROK gaining economic independence in his speech to mark the second anniversary of the conflict, the problems are many, and South Korea has suffered more from the conflict. The fact that “US President Joe Biden’s policies seek to bring the two Asian allies closer together to strengthen triangular cooperation in the region” also plays a role.

Meanwhile, the war around Dokdo continued: On June 25, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism expressed “deep regret” over the response of the IOC, which requested information from the organizing committee in Tokyo about the appearance of Dokdo on the route map of the Olympic torch relay, and was told that it was “a purely topographical expression without any political motivation.”

Nor did public opinion in South Korea appreciate the visit, which resembled surrender. According to a Realmeter poll, 60.2 percent of respondents said they were opposed to the head of state traveling to Japan during the upcoming Games. 33.2% of those surveyed supported such a trip, while the remaining 6.5% had difficulty answering.

On July 11, 2021, in an interview with Yonhap News Agency, a representative of the ROK presidential administration said that the decision on the possible presence of President Moon Jae-in at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo depends on whether the meeting between the two countries’ leaders will be fruitful or not.  “Seoul seeks to organize a summit … to find solutions to pressing problems, such as Japan’s restriction of exports of some raw materials, the forced labor of Koreans during World War II, and the release of radioactive water from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Meanwhile, Japan is not inclined to speak seriously because earlier in the day, the Kyodo Tsushinsha news agency reported that the Japanese prime minister’s talks with foreign guests, including Moon Jae-in, could not exceed 15 minutes due to time constraints.”

But that’s not what’s so interesting. On the same day, Seoul deeply regretted the “one-sided” information leak about the ongoing talks in the context of rumors of what was actually to be discussed at the negotiations. “In such circumstances, it may be difficult to expect continued consultation, and we urge the Japanese side to respond cautiously.” The official confirmed that Seoul and Tokyo are exploring the possibility of a summit between Moon and Suga, “on the assumption that momentum will be created to resolve outstanding bilateral issues and appropriate formalities will be met.”

On the whole, Moon was traditionally caught between two fires. Supporters of the visit insisted that he needed to go to break the deadlock intense bilateral relations – according to conservative lawmaker Ha Tae-keung, normalizing Seoul-Tokyo relations is a task Moon must solve before he leaves office. “The worst-ever relationship between Korea and Japan has continued, and the problem has weakened the nation’s overall diplomatic capabilities and ties between Korea and the US.”

The media (and the author) noted that since early 2021, “Moon has changed his approach to tensions with Japan, despite Tokyo’s commitment to his position. He has repeatedly stated that his government is willing to negotiate with Tokyo to strengthen cooperation between the two sides, separating efforts to forge a future-oriented partnership from long-standing disputes over the history of the two countries.” It has been pointed out that such a shift may be related to the US course, but also “from a broader perspective, Moon should visit Tokyo to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, regardless of what form his proposed summit will take.” There will be few high-profile guests (Biden and many others will not come), so Moon’s presence at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games would help improve the Japanese public’s attitude toward South Korea and build mutual trust.

Opponents of the visit, which included both leftists and rightists, stated that “the Dokdo issue has not yet been resolved, so why is the president going to Japan? A new public opinion poll also shows that 60.2% disapproved of his trip.

Meanwhile, a new scandal erupted at the Olympics. The Japanese right-wingers took offense at the message written on several posters hung on balconies in the rooms of the South Korean athletes, staged a demonstration, and demanded they leave Tokyo. The point is the outwardly innocuous expression, “I still have support from 50 million Korean people.” Still, it is a paraphrased quote from Admiral Yi Sun-sin before defeating the Japanese fleet in a naval battle in 1597. However, in terms of their odiousness, these nationalists are worth the South Korean ones. Their leader Nobuyuki Suzuki placed a wooden stake with the inscription “Takeshima is Japanese territory” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in June 2012, from which he is still being sued. And in this case, they also showed up with the so-called Rising Sun flag, previously used by the Imperial Japanese Army, which acts as a red rag on South Koreans seen by Asian countries as a symbol of Japan’s aggressive and imperialistic past. Far-right organizations still use it in xenophobic demonstrations.

In this context, Lee Kee-heung, head of South Korean Olympic Committee, insisted that the IOC pledge in writing to ban the display of the Japanese imperialist flag. However, the media immediately pointed out that the banners with the historical reference to the IOC were also asked to be removed. Citing a potential violation of Article 2, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

On July 17, the banners were removed after the IOC promised to apply the Olympic Charter to the flag of the Rising Sun as well. For South Korean patriots, this was painful, and the news had to be broken with something serious and anti-Japanese. Fortunately, such news has been found!

On July 16, JTBC (the same channel that “found” Choi Soon-sil’s personal tablet, which turned out to be a fake) reported that Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy, “made sexually suggestive comments” during a meeting with a local cable network reporter, stating that “Moon is only at war with himself”. The Japanese government was called upon to issue a formal apology.

Nevertheless, on July 19, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported that Moon was traveling and would hold his first face-to-face summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the occasion. On the same day, however, the Blue House stated that “no agreement has yet been reached. By obstruction, it quickly became apparent, they were referring to Soma’s remarks, and almost every politician took the opportunity to speak out. Democratic presidential candidate and prominent populist Lee Jae-myung, said on Facebook that the second man at the embassy “humiliated President Moon with an unspeakable sexual term that is shocking and ignorant.” Lee demanded a formal apology.

Another Democratic Party of Korea candidate, Lee Nak-Yon, who is believed to have close ties to key Japanese politicians, said: “It is unbelievable that a diplomat would make such a remark about the leader of the country in which his embassy is located. As someone who knows Japan a little bit, this incident will have an embarrassing effect on Japanese diplomacy.” Conservative candidate Yoo Seong-min called the incident “an unacceptable act that insults the Korean people”: “The government must immediately take appropriate measures to protect the sovereignty and dignity of our country.

As a result, on the evening of July 19, Park Soo Hyun officially announced that Moon Jae-in’s visit to Japan would not take place. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum is likely to attend the opening. Still, in the meantime, the South Korean athletes have defiantly demanded that the ingredients used to cook food for the athletes be tested for radiation levels and have booked a separate hotel for cooking for the athletes.

The author hopes that at least the Olympic stretch of scandals between Seoul and Tokyo will end here, although it is already clear that there will be no analog to the 2018 Olympic Warming.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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