South Korean President Moon Jae-in has decided not to visit Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. Until Monday morning, presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said, “Nothing has been fixed,” about Yomiuri Shimbun’s report that Seoul and Tokyo have agreed for a summit on July 23, but did not rule out the possibility of a summit between the two leaders. The Japanese government has repeatedly expressed regret over vulgar language used by a Japanese diplomat in Seoul to describe South Korean President Moon, hinting that it will hold him accountable by dismissing him. Cheong Wa Dae, however, announced late in the afternoon that the President will not visit Japan.
The fact that Seoul and Tokyo eventually failed to move forward with a summit revealed once again the deep-rooted conflict between the two countries. Yesterday was a deadline for President Moon to decide whether to visit Japan or not since those coming from overseas countries are required to quarantine for three days. The two sides failed to come to an agreement on the summit’s schedule, agenda, time, and protocol even though they had working-level talks until the last minute.
In fact, President Moon’s visit to Japan, timed for the Tokyo Olympics, has drawn attention in that it would be a valuable opportunity for the two sides to restore their relations, which are seen as the worst since their establishment of diplomatic relations. There were talks within the diplomatic circles in the two countries that the bilateral relations could be normalized only after both President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leave office. However, the two sides continued diplomatic consultations under the consensus that they must somehow create an opportunity to restore bilateral relations as the strained relations could taint their future relations as well.
Unfortunately, Korea and Japan failed to overcome the barriers of their battle of pride and old conflict that have been going on for almost three years since 2018. After their failed attempt to meet on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G7) summit held in the United Kingdom last month, the two countries were busy blaming each other. If their action last month is any indication, it is worrisome that they might shift the responsibility onto each other this time as well. President Moon’s scrapped trip to Japan clearly shows the current relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which do not have even a little bit of trust as neighboring countries.
To be sure, one meeting between the leaders of Korea and Japan cannot resolve the old conflict between the two countries. It is not easy to reach an agreement that satisfies both sides in terms of a number of sensitive issues, particularly those related to Korea’s colonial past. However, the least the two sides should do is building a minimum level of trust so that they will not repeat the vicious cycle of confrontation whenever a problem arises between the two. The leaders of Korea and Japan must somehow create an opportunity to turn around their relations.