“Olympic Spirit” Failed to Unite South Korea-Japan Against North Korea-China
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Paul Antonopoulos, independent geopolitical analyst
South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on July 19 through his office that he has decided not to visit Tokyo for the opening ceremony of the upcoming Olympic Games. Effectively, it was the last hope that the two neighbouring countries had to improve their relations with the “Olympic Spirit.”
This would have been the first summit between Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. However, the announcement to cancel the visit to Tokyo came on Monday after South Korea lodged a protest over a news report that said a senior diplomat at Japan’s embassy described Moon as “masturbating” in regards to his efforts to improve relations between the two countries.
Relations between the two countries have been strained since South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered some Japanese companies to compensate Korean workers for forced labor they endured during Japan’s 35-year-long colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula that ended in 1945. The ruling then descended in 2019 into limited export controls on South Korean products to Japan. This led to accusations by Seoul that Tokyo was weaponizing trade and made threats to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement that is the main symbol of their trilateral security cooperation with Washington. The trilateral security cooperation was supposed to improve ties between South Korea and Japan as it is aimed against common adversaries – North Korea and China.
Reacting to Moon’s decision not to visit Tokyo, Yoshihide told reporters that he would continue to work closely with South Korea based on Japan’s desire to improve bilateral relations. However, tensions over past issues still hinder constructive dialogue between the two sides.
The South Korean president’s decision to cancel his visit to Japan was a response to Tokyo’s efforts to pressure and force the Moon government to capitulate on bilateral disputes. It seems that Japan understands the complicated situation the South Korean President is in and is trying to pressure him to accept their position on disputes. However, South Korea is not ready to capitulate on issues like compensation for crimes committed by Japan during World War II.
This dispute between Tokyo and Seoul coincides with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visiting both countries. Sherman, who is in charge of Asia policy, ended her trip to Japan on June 20 and is visiting Seoul from July 21 to 23.
The U.S. issued statements reaffirming its interest in improving the relationship between its two Far Eastern allies. This is done in the hope that the relationship between Japan and South Korea can become more productive, comprehensive and broader in serving U.S. interests. Relations between the U.S., South Korea and Japan in the political and military spheres continues to grow, especially with their eyes set against North Korea and China.
However, as in the past, the U.S. pays more attention to the benefits of strong bilateral relations between the two Asian countries and ignores their contradictions and issues in the hope that they can be focussed against North Korea and China instead.
“That close coordination sends a very critical message to North Korea in that we are together and shoulder-to-shoulder in our approach to this policy,” Sherman told reporters on Wednesday after meeting the vice foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea.
Sherman did not refer directly to the recent tension between Japan and South Korea but said the U.S. had “no greater friends” in the region than those two countries. Essentially, Washington is of the belief that Tokyo and Seoul will set aside their disputes despite them being deeply rooted in history and still unresolved. However, this demonstrates American naivety as it discounts South Korean and Japanese animosities and brings to question whether they will sideline their historical disputes for the sake of serving U.S. interests in the Pacific region.
South Korea and Japan missed the opportunity of the “Olympic Spirit” to improve relations between them. Although both sides have promised to work towards a future summit, it will take some time to smooth over animosity. The U.S.’ hope that mistrust and animosity can be sidelined is out of touch to the sensitivities of the region’s history, people and culture.
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