TOKYO -- The government has given up on a visit to Japan by South Korean President Moon Jae-in this year due to rising bilateral tensions over issues including the treatment of former "comfort women," as well as Seoul's tight diplomatic schedule including a planned visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to people familiar with the decision.
The Japanese government will try to resume arrangements next year to set an appropriate date for the president's visit, they said.
The governments of Japan and South Korea have sought to improve ties this year, as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration that called for a future-oriented relationship between the two countries.
President Moon visited Japan in May this year on the occasion of a tripartite summit meeting with Japanese and Chinese leaders, and expressed his willingness to come to Japan again on his own. If realized this year, it would have been the first standalone visit by a South Korean president in about seven years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked President Moon to make a visit at "an appropriate time," possibly this year, during their late September meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
These overtures have faced headwinds. On the issue of caring for former "comfort women" who were forced to provide sexual service to Japanese soldiers during World War II, a number of South Korean cabinet members suggested the dissolution of a foundation set up to compensate those victims based on a bilateral agreement signed in December 2015. This issue is one of the thorny problems that have prevented the improvement of bilateral ties on many occasions in the past.
President Moon himself told Prime Minister Abe at the September summit that there is "strong demand" in the country for the foundation's dissolution. In response, the Japanese side said such a move would lead to the nullification of the 2015 agreement.
Another recent issue of contention between Tokyo and Seoul was bilateral friction over an international fleet review organized by South Korea on Oct. 11. The South Korean side requested Japan refrain from hoisting the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF)'s rising sun ensign, which is seen as a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism in South Korea. This resulted in Japan's refusal to send MSDF vessels for the event. The issue dragged on further when Tokyo filed a diplomatic complaint against Seoul after it was found out that other countries participating in the review hoisted their unique naval ensigns despite South Korean requests.
In addition, a court ruling is expected this year in a damages lawsuit filed by former laborers who said they were forced to work at factories during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.
"We have those history issues, and receiving Mr. Moon by the end of this year is difficult," said an individual close to the government. Referring to Seoul's efforts to realize the visit of North Korean leader Kim by year-end, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "South Korea would not have room to consider a visit (by Moon) to Japan."
Meanwhile, the Abe administration does not want the bilateral relationship to deteriorate given the need to cooperate with Seoul over North Korea. President Moon is scheduled to visit Japan in June next year for the summit meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized and emerging economies in the western city of Osaka. Another senior Foreign Ministry official said Japan will continue to seek a visit by the South Korean leader apart from the G-20 summit.
(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)