Out of the freezer

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Out of the freezer

 In an another ugly turn, Korea and Japan are bent on blaming each other for the cancellation of a meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in the UK. A Korean diplomatic official leaked to the local press the allegation that Japan had provisionally agreed to a brief meeting between the two leaders but unilaterally called it off because of Korea’s military drill to defend the Dokdo islets in the East Sea. After the news broke, Japan’s diplomatic officials denied it, saying Japan had never agreed to hold such a meeting.

It is clear that Korea pushed for a short meeting between the two leaders while Japan was reluctant. Even if it was difficult to have a full-scale summit — Tokyo would not accept that unless Seoul presented effective ways to address the tricky issue of wartime forced labor — there was the possibility of a brief meeting in Britain. But those hopes were dashed. Whether both sides reached a provisional agreement or not, the idea of a brief meeting was apparently never very warmly embraced by Tokyo.

The responsibility for the diplomatic gulf between Korea and Japan growing larger falls on Korea for sure. Even if Japan actually broke a promise to hold a bilateral summit, it is not appropriate for Korea to deviate from diplomatic convention and leak it to media outlets. Disclosing behind-the-scenes consultations to the media to pin the blame on Japan only worsens the situation.

The emotional standoff over the issue will certainly have a negative impact on Moon’s expected trip to Japan during the Tokyo Olympics starting July 23. Ominous signs are already surfacing. After Japan’s news organizations reported that Moon expressed his hope to visit Japan through diplomatic channels, Korean officials showed a very unpleasant reaction. But they can hardly blame Japan. In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun Friday, Korea’s Ambassador to Japan Kang Chang-il already relayed Moon’s hope for a trip to Tokyo during the Olympic Games.

If the chilliest diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan since the 1965 normalization of ties are left in the freezer, they might never be able to be thawed. Both countries confront many challenges such as economic cooperation, North Korean denuclearization and China’s rise. They must stop their hostilities toward each other immediately. Nobody benefits. The Tokyo Olympiad offers a precious opportunity to put relations back on track.

Japan must open the door to dialogue and Korea must come up with a solution to address the wartime forced labor issue. If it takes time for Seoul to find solutions, Moon can express his determination to resolve it. That can be the first step.
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