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International relations

South Korea's Moon decides against trip to Tokyo for Olympics

Summit talks collapse as both sides fail to narrow gap over historical issues

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during an on-line press conference with local and foreign journalists at the Blue House on January 18, 2021 in Seoul. (File photo by Getty Images) 

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in decided not to travel to Tokyo this week for the Olympics, the presidential Blue House announced Monday, withdrawing an initial plan to hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The Blue House said Moon decided against traveling as talks between Seoul and Tokyo over holding a summit collapsed.

Relations between the two U.S. allies have deteriorated in recent years over thorny historical issues such as so-called comfort women and Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. Japan's limiting of semiconductor and display material exports to South Korea has also come between the neighbors.

"We decided on this because we could not have enough accomplishments for the summit, although the meetings were held in a friendly atmosphere and we narrowed our gaps considerably," Park Su-hyun, senior communications secretary to Moon, said in a briefing.

The announcement comes days after a Japanese diplomat mocked Moon with a lewd description. Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, told a reporter that "Moon is masturbating himself" over the chance of a summit between the two leaders in Tokyo.

The Blue House said that Soma's remarks affected Moon's decision to cancel the trip.

"It was an unacceptable remark. We should have considered our people's sentiments and the atmosphere inside the Blue House also turned skeptical of the visit," said a high-ranking official of the Blue House, who asked not to be named.

The official also asked the Japanese government to take appropriate action to avoid any recurrence of such comments.

Suga said Monday that Soma's sexually explicit remarks were "extremely inappropriate," adding that he would seek to continue dialogue with South Korea to mend bilateral relations while maintaining Japan's "consistent position."

The Blue House official said that the two countries had aimed to mend ties in the summit, but Seoul realized that they needed more time and discussions to reach the goal.

South Korea and Japan have not held summit talks since December 2019, when Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe and Moon met in Chengdu, China. Suga and Moon merely exchanged greetings at a Group of Seven summit in the U.K. in June.

Tokyo wants Seoul to suggest solutions to resolve a South Korean Supreme Court's ruling that Japanese companies have to pay compensation to Korean laborers forced to work for them during the war. But Seoul says that the government should respect the top court's ruling.

The comfort women issue is also unresolved. The two countries agreed to end the dispute in 2015 by setting up a foundation funded by the Japanese government to help comfort women who served in the military brothels during the war. However, the Moon government dissolved the foundation after taking power in 2017, saying the agreement failed to win supports from the victims.

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