As the Pyeongchang Olympic Games loom, there are growing calls within the Japanese government for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to attend the games' opening ceremony set for Feb. 9. The push for his absence is aimed at underscoring Japan's protests over South Korean President Moon Jae-in's recent statement branding it difficult for the country to accept its 2015 agreement with Japan over the wartime "comfort women" issue.
President Moon announced that his country would refrain from using a 1 billion yen contribution made by Tokyo to a foundation set up by the South Korean government to support former comfort women based on the accord. In place of these funds, Seoul will provide exactly the same amount. He also requested that Japan offer a voluntary apology to former comfort women.
The Japanese government has understandably taken the position of not allowing Seoul to make any additional demands over the comfort women issue, on the grounds that the 2015 pact was meant to be "a final and irreversible resolution" of the issue.
That said, the Japanese government should be cautious about bringing any political conflict into the "festival of peace" that the Olympic Games are. If Prime Minister Abe abstained from attending the opening ceremony, it would leave a strong impression of soured Japan-South Korea relations both at home and abroad. And if Tokyo's estrangement from Seoul becomes conspicuous, it would only end up serving the interests of the North Korean regime.
South Korea has requested that Prime Minister Abe attend the opening ceremony. The Winter Games represent a prime opportunity for Seoul to bask in the public spotlight. Prime Minister Abe should show his respect for the host country by taking part in the opening session, which may also eventually give Tokyo a stronger voice in its future communications with Seoul.
Collaboration between Japan and South Korea is indispensable in dealing with North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile programs. By joining hands, Tokyo and Seoul will be able to demonstrate their cooperative ties to the North, which is apparently looking to drive a wedge between the two neighbors.
In the event of any contingencies on the Korean Peninsula, Tokyo will need to seek Seoul's help in evacuating Japanese nationals living in South Korea. Olympic diplomacy could lay the groundwork for such scenarios.
During the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Prime Minister Abe attended the opening ceremony out of respect for Japan-Russia relations, while many Western leaders abstained in protest over human rights issues in Russia. It is a good idea to adopt a diplomatic strategy that will serve national interests in the end.
Following the Pyeongchang Games, Tokyo will host the Summer Games in 2020. Another Asian host, Beijing, will then stage the 2022 Winter Games. Looking back, the then Japanese prime ministers were present at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games.
It is essential for Japan to separate the Olympics from the comfort women issue and take a level-headed response without reacting excessively to South Korea's moves, while saying what it needs to say to its neighbor. If Prime Minister Abe is to appear at the opening ceremony next month, it would naturally highlight Japan's clear-headed diplomatic stance.