South Korean President Moon Jae-in has decided not to attend the upcoming Olympics in Japan, his office said on Monday (July 19), dashing hopes that the two countries could improve strained ties if their leaders were to hold their first bilateral summit on the sidelines of the Games.
The announcement came amid an uproar in South Korea over lewd comments by a Seoul-based senior Japanese diplomat, who last week described Mr Moon's efforts to improve relations between the two countries as "masturbating".
Mr Moon's press secretary Park Soo-hyun said on Monday that the two countries had "meaningful discussion" on how to advance from historical issues and boost future-oriented cooperation, including holding a first summit between Mr Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office last September.
Mr Park added that the two sides made "considerable progress, but it was not sufficient to be regarded as a summit result".
"The decision was made in consideration of other circumstances too," he added, without elaborating.
Another official from Mr Moon's office said they would "continue efforts to have dialogue with Japan", and that they hope there would be another chance for the two leaders to meet.
In response to Mr Moon's decision not to visit Japan, Mr Suga told reporters he will "continue to communicate firmly with the South Korea side based on Japan's consistent position", in order to restore their relationship to a healthy one.
When asked if the Japanese diplomat's lewd remark led to Mr Moon's decision, Mr Suga said that he was not in a position to comment on Seoul's decision-making rationale.
However, he acknowledged that "it was a very inappropriate statement for a diplomat, and I regret that the statement was made".
Japan is planning to remove the diplomat, Kyodo News reported on Monday, citing a government source.
Ties between Seoul and Tokyo soured over historical issues such as wartime sex slaves and forced labour, before escalating into a 2019 trade spat that saw South Koreans boycotting Japanese brands.
Under pressure from the new United States administration under President Joe Biden, South Korea has been eagerly trying to engage Japan, but with little success, as Tokyo wants Seoul to come up with concrete action first to address the forced labour dispute.
A diplomatic tug-of-war ensued over President Moon's potential visit to Tokyo. Mr Suga said Japan would accommodate Mr Moon if he were to visit Tokyo, but the South Korean leader wanted not only a courtesy call but a "meaningful and substantive outcome" from their first summit.
Experts lamented that Seoul and Tokyo are missing an opportunity for reconciliation and their ties are unlikely to improve during the rest of Mr Moon's term, which is slated to end in May next year.
Dr Lee Seong-hyon, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Corean-American Studies said "it is easy to blame the fiasco on the 'masturbating' comment, but a deeper look reveals a more fundamental discord on the thorny bilateral issues surrounding forced labour and sex slave matters".
"On the historical issues, if Moon wins, Suga loses. If Suga wins, then Moon loses," Dr Lee told The Straits Times.
"So Suga cannot accept South Korean demands for making concessions on the wartime history issues. Knowing that, Moon seems to have decided to forgo his plan to attend an Olympics that will not give him any diplomatic trophy."
Dr Lee added that Japan's attitude towards South Korea has hardened because "Tokyo is confident that Washington values Tokyo's fuller commitment to the US Indo-Pacific policy", and this allows Japan to "deal with South Korea from a position of strength, more than before".
"It's very unfortunate that both Seoul and Tokyo cannot use the Olympics as an opportunity for reconciliation," he said. "On the contrary, it makes their relationship drift further apart. Bilateral ties are likely to remain sterile."
• Additional reporting by Walter Sim in Tokyo