South Korean President Moon Jae-in will not visit Tokyo for the upcoming Olympics, scrapping plans for what would have been his first summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The announcement came on Monday after Seoul lodged a protest over a news report on Friday that a senior diplomat at Japan’s embassy in Seoul had said Moon was “masturbating” when describing his efforts to improve relations between the two countries.
“President Moon has decided not to visit Japan,” Moon’s press secretary Park Soo-hyun told a briefing.
“As the Tokyo Olympics is a peaceful festival for all people around the world, we hope that Japan will host it safely and successfully.”
The latest uproar further inflamed relations between the two nations feuding over territorial claims and their wartime history, dashing any remaining hopes that the Tokyo Games might offer a fresh start for bilateral and regional cooperation.
Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper earlier on Monday reported Moon would meet Suga in Tokyo on Friday, in time for the start of the Olympics. But both governments quickly denied a meeting had been finalised, with Moon’s office citing a “last-minute obstacle”.
Japan was also planning to replace the Seoul-based diplomat after his reported comments about Moon, the newspaper said. Japan’s top government spokesperson said the ambassador cautioned his deputy over reported remarks.
“The remarks were inappropriate as a diplomat, and we think it is very regrettable,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular briefing. Asked about the report about the diplomat’s removal, Kato said it was a matter for the foreign minister and did not provide further details.
A summit between the two leaders had not been decided but if Moon decided to visit, Japan would accommodate him, Kato added. South Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choi Jong-kun, summoned Japan’s Ambassador Koichi Aiboshi on Saturday to protest.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been strained since South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered some Japanese companies to compensate Korean forced labourers for their ordeals during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The rulings led to further tensions over trade when Japan imposed export controls on chemicals vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry in 2019.
Seoul accused Tokyo of weaponising trade and threatened to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo that was a major symbol of their trilateral security cooperation with Washington.
South Korea eventually backed off and continued the deal after being pressured by the Trump administration, which until then seemed content to let its allies escalate their feud in public.
The countries have been trying to improve relations since the inauguration of United States’ President Joe Biden, who has called for stronger three-way cooperation in the face of North Korean nuclear threats and challenges posed by China. But progress has been slow and friction between the countries has continued as the Olympics approach.
On Saturday, South Korea’s Olympic Committee removed banners at the Olympic athletes’ village in Tokyo that referred to a 16th-century Korean naval admiral who fought off an invading Japanese fleet after the International Olympic Committee ruled they were provocative.
In agreeing to take down the banners, the South Koreans said they received a promise from the IOC that displays of the Japanese “rising sun” flag will be banned at stadiums and other Olympic venues.
The flag, portraying a red sun with 16 rays extending outward, is resented by many people in South Korea and other parts of Asia who see it as a symbol of Japan’s wartime past.