South Korean President Moon Jae-in will not visit Tokyo for the upcoming Olympics, his office said on Monday, scrapping plans for what would have been his first summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The announcement came after Seoul lodged a protest over a news report on Friday that a senior diplomat at Japan’s embassy in Seoul had said Moon was “masturbating” when describing his efforts to improve relations between the two countries.
“President Moon has decided not to visit Japan,” Moon’s press secretary Park Soo-hyun told a briefing, adding both sides had explored ways to tackle rows over history and boost cooperation but failed to reach agreement.
“The discussions were held amicably and made considerable progress, but it still fell short of being considered as a summit result, and we took other circumstances into account,” Park said, without elaborating.
Suga declined to comment on Moon’s decision, but described the Japanese diplomat’s remarks as “inappropriate.”
Moon’s office said it turned “sceptical” about his potential trip after the Japanese diplomat’s “unacceptable” comment.
Moon will instead send the culture minister to Friday’s opening ceremony as head of the Korean delegation, his office said, wishing Japan safe and successful Olympics.
The latest uproar further inflamed relations between the two nations feuding over territorial claims and their wartime history, dashing any remaining hopes that the Tokyo Games might offer a fresh start for bilateral and regional cooperation.
The neighbours have long been at odds over compensation for Koreans forced to work in Japanese firms and military brothels during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.
Last month, another spat erupted over a map on the Tokyo Olympics website showing a set of Korea-controlled islands as Japanese territory.
Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper earlier on Monday reported Moon would meet Suga in Tokyo on Friday, but both governments quickly denied a meeting had been finalised, with Moon’s office citing an “last minute obstacle.”
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Tokyo’s ambassador in Seoul Koichi Aiboshi cautioned his deputy over his “regrettable” remarks, but did not elaborate when asked whether he would be sacked as reported by Yomiuri.
South Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choi Jong-kun, summoned Aiboshi on Saturday to protest. Moon’s office said it took note of Kato’s comment, but called for Tokyo to take steps to prevent such a situation from recurring.
Suga this month called relations between Japan and South Korea “very difficult”, adding that it was up to Seoul to address history disputes and other problems.
Moon had earlier hoped the Olympics may offer an opportunity for North and South Korea to improve relations and revive peace talks, before Pyongyang announced it would not take part because of coronavirus concerns.