TOKYO -- Ahead of the mid-June G-7 leaders' summit in Cornwall, England, the Japanese and South Korean governments arranged for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Moon Jae-in -- who had been invited as a guest -- to meet.
The South Korean side understood it to be an informal meeting, and the Japanese prepared accordingly. However, the tenuous understanding collapsed at the last minute with serious implications for the next possible step at the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to open on July 23.
U.S. President Joe Biden also attended the G-7. His influential secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has been urging Japan and South Korea to patch things up. Biden's administration is keen to promote international cooperation, and is troubled by feuds among its Asian allies when they should be bolstering it in relation to China and North Korea.
Japanese officials responsible for South Korea did accompany Suga to Cornwall, but the meeting was not to be. After their arrival, they were informed that the South Korean navy would begin regular drills on June 15 in the Sea of Japan around the Takeshima islets. The Koreans name for the same islets is Dokdo, and both countries claim the rocks. For Koreans, the name Takeshima is a reminder of Japanese militarism and the 1910-1945 occupation.
Under the circumstances, Suga decided to forgo even a short meeting with Moon. The encounter would have been the first in some time, but it would also have been heavily criticized with the Korean naval exercises beginning just two days after the G-7 ended. With a lower house election coming in the autumn, the Japanese government and the ruling party are exceptionally sensitive to public opinion.
Since national liberation, the disputed islets have become almost sacred to many Koreans. The training schedule was already set, and any changes in deference to Japan would have stirred criticism of the Moon administration among the progressive politicians it depends on. The Korean side kept the drills secret -- and apparently decided not to conduct landing operations -- but the Japanese were unimpressed when they found this out.
The two leaders did meet in passing on June 12 when Moon approached Suga briefly to exchange "simple greetings." The official Japanese account of the encounter was laden with reluctance. The two leaders also managed to exchange only a few words at the dinner, where the atmosphere was more relaxed.
"We think it is regrettable that the Japanese side did not respond to the pull-aside plan, which the two sides had agreed on at a working level," a South Korean foreign ministry official told Yonhap News.
In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato rebutted the report. "There is absolutely no fact to it," he said. "We lodged an immediate complaint with the South Korean side."
The Koreans attached great importance to this meeting between the two leaders, but found the Japanese cold. Officials wanted Moon, who is keen to improve relations with Japan, to convey to Suga his wish for a successful Tokyo Olympics, and his intention to attend the opening ceremony in Tokyo.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited South Korea and met with Moon during the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer heads of state than usual are expected in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee invites national leaders and other officials to attend, and some believe that protocol would make it difficult for Japan to refuse a meeting with Moon if he were to come.
If things had gone better at the G-7, it could have paved the way for a bilateral summit alongside the Olympics. That now looks unlikely. Japan is not giving anything away, saying only that "there has been no formal request from the Korean side."
That makes it a tough call for South Korea. Without a commitment that Moon will get to meet Suga, the decision for him to go to Japan cannot be made.
Everything now depends on the prime minister's decision. Reporters asked Suga if he was waiting until a clearer path to resolving pending issues emerged. "That is my basic thinking," he answered. "Promises between countries are not being kept."
Suga was referring to a South Korean court decision requiring the Japanese government and companies to compensate former comfort women and wartime laborers. For many, that was tantamount to warning Moon off a visit to Japan at the present time.
Japan's attitude has upset many in South Korea, where support for postponing any visit has grown. The JoongAng Ilbo daily reported on June 23 that one option is to send Hwang Hee, the minister of culture, sports and tourism, in Moon's place.
A survey released by Realmeter, a South Korean polling company, found that about 60% of respondents were against Moon visiting Japan in conjunction with the Olympics, compared to 33% who supported the idea.
Meanwhile, the presidential election campaign to determine who will succeed Moon come March 9, 2022, began in earnest last week. The Tokyo Olympics will therefore probably be the last chance for a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, and the deadline is fast approaching.