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International relations

South Korea shrugs at unraveling ties with Japan

Shifting focus to North Korea and China gives Seoul less reason to compromise

A statue symbolizing wartime "comfort women" in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The issue is one of many flashpoints between the two neighbors.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The chill between South Korea and Japan is showing no sign of thawing, as Seoul takes little interest in salvaging a relationship that has dwindled in diplomatic and economic significance.

The latest row began when National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang called for an apology from Japanese Emperor Akihito to former wartime "comfort women." In a Feb. 8 interview with Bloomberg, Moon called the monarch "the son of the main culprit of war crimes" and argued that "if a person like that holds the hands of the elderly and says he's really sorry, then that one word will resolve matters once and for all."

When the Japanese government demanded that Moon retract his comments, he likened Tokyo to a "brazen thief."

A Japan expert in South Korea expressed bewilderment at Moon's remarks. "Why would he say something so ridiculous?" the expert said. "It's not as if he knows nothing about Japan."

Indeed, the speaker is one of Seoul's foremost links to the country. Moon chaired a Korea-Japan lawmakers' association between 2004 and 2008 and was named a special envoy to Tokyo in 2017 after President Moon Jae-in took office.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have deteriorated steadily since last year amid clashes over court orders for Japanese companies to compensate wartime laborers, a South Korean vessel allegedly locking fire-control radar on a Japanese plane, and South Korea's disbanding of a foundation set up with Japanese money to aid former comfort women.

Moon Hee-sang, speaker of South Korea's National Assembly, called the Japanese government "brazen" for demanding he retract a call for Emperor Akihito to apologize to wartime "comfort women."   © Kyodo

As President Moon's government has focused on reconciliation with North Korea, Japan has fallen down its list of priorities.

"We have become a main player on issues regarding the Korean Peninsula," the president boasted in his New Year news conference last month. Bringing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table for denuclearization talks with the U.S. is a source of pride for the country.

Japan's role must necessarily vanish now that the two Koreas and the U.S. are engaging in talks, Moon Chung-in, South Korea's special adviser on unification, reportedly remarked at a symposium in Tokyo this month. While he said this is not a case of "Japan passing" -- a phrase meaning ignoring or overlooking Tokyo -- his comments are indicative of Seoul's attitude toward its eastern neighbor.

The economic relationship between the two has shifted as well. Though South Korea still relies on Japan for parts and materials, the country has grown less important as an export destination while China has gained greater prominence. Japan was the fifth-largest importer of South Korean goods last year, down from second place in 2000.

The Moon Jae-in administration is not intentionally trying to pick a fight with Tokyo. But as it loses interest in Japan, it has less motivation to hold back on criticism or smooth ruffled Japanese feathers.

"It used to be that even if relations deteriorated, we'd work behind the scenes to improve them, but we're not seeing any efforts like that now," said Shin Kak-soo, who served as South Korean ambassador to Japan until 2013 under then-President Lee Myung-bak. "That's frightening."

South Korea's presidential Blue House now has almost no one with a good understanding of Japan. One of its few experts, economic affairs adviser Kim Hyun-chul, submitted his resignation in January after a gaffe.

The influence of the "Japan School" of diplomats, which once took center stage in South Korea's Foreign Affairs Ministry, seems to be waning. The JoongAng Ilbo reported late last year that the ministry is considering launching a dedicated bureau for China relations, while lumping the Japan division together with India and Australia. The South Korean Embassy in Japan has become an unpopular posting, no longer seen to be worth the work involved.

Meanwhile, the long-running dispute over islets claimed by Tokyo as Takeshima and Seoul as Dokdo continues to simmer. Japan's Cabinet Office will send a senior official to Shimane Prefecture's annual "Takeshima Day" ceremony on Friday. This will be the seventh straight year a national government representative has attended the event, and Seoul has protested every year.

Two upcoming milestones could add fuel to anti-Japanese sentiment. Coming next month is the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement for Korean independence from Japan's colonial rule. Seoul is planning a major event to commemorate the occasion and has invited North Korea to participate. April marks the centennial of the establishment of the Republic of Korea's provisional government-in-exile in China.

People "won't accept compromising too readily with Japan this year," a South Korean diplomatic source said.

"If we try to talk about improving relations, we might become part of the 'accumulated evils' to be rooted out," a Japanese government insider said, invoking Moon's crackdown on corruption and other negative legacies of past administrations..

"Silence is golden," the official said with a shrug.

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