Tokyo ministry downgrades description of Korea

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Tokyo ministry downgrades description of Korea

Despite disputes over history and territory, modern Japan and South Korea share the core principles of freedom, democracy and belief in a market economy.

Not anymore, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Overnight, the ministry deleted from its official website a statement that said the two countries share those core values, a move that is bound to raise hackles in Seoul as bilateral relations continue to be frozen over.

The usual description on the ministry’s website said that South Korea is “an important neighboring country that shares basic values, such as freedom, democracy and a market economy, with Japan.”

After being updated on March 2, the website now describes Korea as “the most important neighboring country for Japan.”

The puzzling deletion is likely to exacerbate diplomatic tensions amid efforts to build up cooperation such as holding a trilateral foreign ministers’ summit that also includes China. Seoul and Tokyo are supposed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of normalization of bilateral ties this year.

A Japanese foreign ministry official told the Asahi Shimbun that the description simply matches one that has been used by the government recently.

However, another Japanese government official said that the change likely was triggered by the indictment of a Sankei Shimbun reporter in Seoul last year on defamation charges, the Asahi reported on Wednesday.

The official referred to Tokyo’s “distrust of South Korea’s judiciary and society.”

Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, was charged last October with defaming President Park Geun-hye in a report he wrote for his newspaper published on Aug. 3.

The report said that Park was missing for seven hours on April 16, the day the Sewol ferry sank, and alleged that she was secretly meeting a recently divorced former aide. Kato is currently standing trial and the Korean Ministry of Justice extended a travel ban on Kato to April 15.

A Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “It is not appropriate for us to try to interpret the expressions used by the Japanese government.”

The deletion from Japan’s Foreign Ministry website also reflects some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rhetoric over the years.

In a policy speech in February 2013, Abe said Korea is Japan’s “most important neighboring country that shares basic values and interests, such as freedom and democracy.”

But by last month Abe had shortened his description of Korea as Japan’s “most important neighboring country.”

Such subtle changes and deletions in language can have significant implications.

Korea remains worried Abe will water down landmark statements issued by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 apologizing for Japan’s wartime aggressions and the forced sexual slavery of the so-called comfort women victims in his address marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August.

But analysts in Korea warn of overanalyzing each move by the Abe government.

“In a position where we don’t have any concrete evidence, we should not conclude that Japan had any special agenda,” said Bong Young-shik, a foreign policy senior researcher with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Japan has continued to maintain that we are the most important neighboring country, which is a positive thing.

“We need to question whether being suspicious about each and every move will be conducive to building an environment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties,” said Bong. “We need to first reflect on what our role can be to improve Korea and Japan ties.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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