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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on July 13)

All News 07:09 July 13, 2021

Tug of war
Moon needs to attend opening ceremony of Tokyo Olympics regardless of summit with Suga

Seoul and Tokyo seem to be in a tug of war over the form and agenda of President Moon Jae-in's envisioned meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the occasion of Moon's possible trip to Tokyo to attend the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games slated for July 23.

The presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae reiterated Sunday that Moon's decision to attend or not depended on whether the visit would guarantee a fruitful summit between the two leaders.

The comment came after Japanese news media reported earlier in the day that diplomats from South Korea and Japan had begun consultations to set up a meeting between Moon and Suga.

The report said Suga's talks with foreign guests, including Moon, might be limited to about 15 minutes each due to time constraints. Japanese officials also want to exclude discussions or negotiations on pending bilateral issues from the envisioned summit.

Seoul has sought to arrange a formal summit between Moon and Suga in the hope that this would lay the groundwork for a resolution to thorny issues with Tokyo.

It still seems likely that Moon will travel to Tokyo even if a full-fledged summit with Suga is impossible.

It is noteworthy that Seoul has left open the possibility of Moon visiting Tokyo in time for the opening of the Olympic Games, despite the Japanese government's reported refusal to set the stage for in-depth discussions between Moon and Suga on a range of bilateral issues. This restraint appears to reflect the Moon administration's wish to build momentum toward mending the frayed ties between South Korea and Japan.

Since Moon took office in May 2017, Seoul and Tokyo have seen bilateral relations deteriorate badly because of historical issues that have spilled over into the economic and military realms.

The Moon administration has been criticized for neglecting to find diplomatic solutions to historical disputes with Tokyo, saying it could do little about court judgments. The disputes have thus been complicated by South Korean court rulings in favor of South Koreans who were subjected to sexual enslavement and forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.

Tokyo has argued that all reparations issues were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two nations.

Since the onset of this year, Moon has made a shift in his approach to the strained ties with Japan, despite Tokyo's adherence to its position. He has repeatedly said his government is ready to talk with Tokyo about enhancing cooperation between the two sides, separating efforts to forge a future-oriented partnership from long-standing disputes over the history of the two countries.

Moon's departure from his previous inflexible position seems to be the result, in part, of increasing calls from US President Joe Biden's administration for improved ties between Seoul and Tokyo, which are essential to its push to strengthen trilateral cooperation with its two key Asian allies.

Moon may also have worried that prolonged tensions between South Korea and Japan could hamper Seoul's efforts to hold smooth consultations with the Biden administration in pushing for his peace agenda for the peninsula.

It should be noted that inconsistent government stances and court rulings hamper Seoul from making a solid case against Tokyo on thorny bilateral issues. Without ensuring internal consistency and coordination, South Korea can hardly win understanding and support from the international community with regard to disputes with Japan. Issues between the two countries must be addressed in a way that meets globally accepted standards and complies with international law.

From a broader viewpoint, it is desirable for Moon to visit Tokyo to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games regardless of what form his envisioned summit with Suga takes.

However long their discussions might last, it would be hard for the two countries to reach substantial understanding on diplomatic ways to resolve long-standing historical disputes.

With most foreign heads of state, including US President Biden, avoiding travel to Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moon's attendance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games would help improve the Japanese public's sentiment toward South Korea and enhance mutual trust. This could give a boost to diplomatic efforts by the two nations to move beyond their historical disputes and forge a future-oriented partnership.


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