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Japan–South Korea Olympic diplomacy over before it began

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The Olympic Rings monument is seen outside the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) headquarters near the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, 23 June 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

Despite the long list of problems associated with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — corruption, scandals, budget overruns, a year’s long delay due to COVID-19 and widespread public opposition — the event continues to be billed as a festival of peace.


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In the tradition of the Olympic truce dating back to ancient Greece, the Games are ostensibly an opportunity to bring the world together and encourage political leaders in a spirit of international cooperation and reconciliation. Yet cautious hopes that Tokyo 2020 might be grasped as a diplomatic moment to start to repair relations between Japan and South Korea were dashed just days before the Games began.

Back in 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Olympic diplomacy during the Pyeongchang Winter Games helped foster inter-Korean and US–DPRK dialogue and pull the Trump administration back from the brink of unleashing ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea.

Keen to grasp the chance for Olympic diplomacy again, President Moon was widely expected to visit Tokyo to attend the opening ceremony of the Games and hold a bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Japanese and South Korean officials had been holding bilateral discussions with the aim of making progress on resolving historical issues, such as the wartime ‘comfort women’ and forced labour issues, as well as building future-oriented cooperation, especially vis-a-vis North Korea. But just days before Tokyo 2020 kicked off, the South Korean President’s office, the Blue House, announced that Moon was cancelling his trip.

The sudden cancellation of the Moon–Suga Olympic summit came after it was reported that the deputy chief of mission in the Japanese Embassy in Seoul had made comments describing Moon’s efforts to repair relations with Japan as tantamount to ‘masturbating’.

South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun summoned Japanese Ambassador Koichi Aiboshi to lodge a formal protest. Ambassador Aiboshi reprimanded his deputy who retracted his comments. The Japanese government is planning to remove the offending diplomat from his post in Seoul.

In announcing the cancellation, the Blue House referred to insufficient background progress for a summit-level accomplishment and an unexpected ‘obstacle’. The inappropriate and undiplomatic comments seem to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back as domestic sensitivities toward Japan have the potential to sour the Moon administration’s public support.

The cancellation of the summit can be seen as a microcosm of the problems facing the Japan–South Korea relationship today. The Suga administration has displayed a stubborn and cold attitude towards the Moon government, which has grown frustrated and impatient towards Japanese refusals to compromise.

As veteran Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo says in this week’s feature piece, ‘the Japanese government’s rigidity goes beyond common sense and its position is not in Japan’s national interest’. It is rooted in ‘a sense of anger toward President Moon among some quarters of the Japanese government’, undermines US–Japan–South Korea trilateral security cooperation and throws away ‘a window of opportunity that had only just opened’.

The stubborn attitude of the Suga government toward South Korea has its origins in part in the revisionist understanding of history that has come to dominate Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Similar to the Abe cabinets that preceded it, 15 out of 21 members of the Suga cabinet are members of the parliamentary discussion group of Nippon Kaigi, an ultranationalist lobby group that denies many of Japan’s wartime atrocities. This includes denials of the coercive nature of the recruitment of the ‘comfort women’ who were forced into Japan’s military brothels as well as the conscription of wartime forced labour. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s family company used both Allied POWs and Korean forced wartime labour, but has only apologised to Western countries.

It is through this revisionist lens of history that such anger has developed in some quarters of the Japanese government when South Korean courts ruled in favour of compensation for the families of Korean forced labourers and when the Moon government bowed to public opinion and cancelled the 2015 comfort women agreement.

On the South Korean side, the impulse to engage relates to the sensitivities of the issues at play vis-a-vis Japan as its former colonial ruler. Bold moves to reconcile with Japan by Moon may be judged harshly by the South Korean media and public if Suga is not seen to be reciprocating in good faith.

Things have not always been this way. Japan and South Korea have forged meaningful cooperation a number of times since normalising relations in 1965.

This includes the regaining of trust led by then Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s, the 1993 Kono Statement, which recognised the Japanese government’s role in the coercive recruitment of ‘comfort women’, and the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund between 1994 and 2007 to compensate former ‘comfort women’.

The 1998 Joint Declaration signed by then Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and the 2015 comfort women agreement signed by then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean president Park Geun-hye were also important milestones.

In order to start repairing relations, Japan and South Korea will need to focus on common interests that have brought them together in the past. The most obvious and most pressing starting point is to deepen US–Japan–South Korea trilateral security cooperation so that the region can be best prepared for any scenario on the Korean Peninsula, as the Biden administration seeks to restart denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea.

While the moment for Olympic diplomacy may have passed, Japan and South Korea will still have to prioritise regional peace and stability ahead of nationalism and narrow domestic political gains.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

One response to “Japan–South Korea Olympic diplomacy over before it began”

  1. As long as Japanese policy towards S Korea is dominated by members of Nippon Kaigi nothing will change. The agreement of 2015 and the ‘apology’ by Abe were merely gestures aimed at pacifying the USA. The members of Nippon Kaigi do not even begin to grasp the admittedly challenging work of reconciliation that would be required. Germany and S Africa made substantial progress because its leaders were willing to engage in ongoing dialogue with the victims of the Holocaust and apartheid. The Germans have held memorials annually and paid reparations directly to the victims not to some general fund. Would the members of Nippon Kaigi be willing to do that?!?

    Someone outside of the mainstream in Japan has to rise to the occasion, announce a new policy, and then show the courage needed to implement it. Hopefully, the Japanese public would support such efforts. Is there anyone inside the LDP who can/would do that?

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