Former comfort woman Lee Yong-soo, 88, attended South Korea’s welcome reception for United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday, November 7th, upon the invitation of her government. It is undeniable that Seoul's brazen efforts are to use Trump’s visit to promote its version of the comfort women issue, while ownership of Takeshima is yet another lingering issue that was revisited. All of these issues could have potential ramifications on the future of Japanese-Korean relations.
In 2007, Lee testified on the comfort women issue before the US Congress, which subsequently passed a resolution calling for Japan to issue an official apology. She has since made repeated visits to the US, becoming well-known for her involvement in the installation of comfort women statues both in Korea and foreign countries, while also demanding abrogation of the 2015 Japan-Korea Agreement on the Comfort Women Issue.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in espouses a similar view that “the majority of the Korean people do not support” the Japan-Korea Agreement on the Comfort Women Issue.
Moreover, Moon’s office specifically mentioned the fact that the menu at the November 7th reception featured dishes of “Dokdo Shrimp," which were said to have been caught in the sea offshore of Takeshima. Dokdo is the Korean name for Takeshima Island, which is located in Okinoshima-Cho in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture.
According to the Office of the South Korean President, “Each dish had its own meaning and this was meant to express sincereness toward the first-time visit by a head of state.” The emphasis of the menu was on a message of “harmony.” However, to bring out the “seeds of dispute” with Japan, at a reception to welcome the American President, is an action that can only be described as a diplomatic discourtesy.
In the South Korean media, the overriding tone is one lamenting South Korea’s lack of diplomatic prowess, as they compared Trump’s deepening of ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—he stayed for three days in Japan, even playing golf with the prime minister—while he only made an overnight stopover in Korea. So, the Moon administration’s highlighting of the former comfort woman, while also featuring "Dokdo Shrimp" during the dinner for Trump, was clearly designed to appeal to a domestic audience.
In response to this, the Japanese government submitted a protest via its office in Seoul on November 7th.
In a press conference on November 7th, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his displeasure, stating, “Given that President Trump has chosen to visit Japan and Korea as the first stops on his trip [due to the North Korean issue], there is a need to avoid actions which adversely affect close cooperation between Japan, the US, and Korea.”
Furthermore, it was revealed that the government had previously explained Japan’s position to the South Korean government, emphasizing its “call for the steady implementation” of the Japan-Korea Agreement on the Comfort Women Issue, which was established as a final and irrevocable resolution on the issue.
Suga was, likewise, nonplussed regarding the feature of Dokdo shrimp, saying, “As the government, we refrain from commenting on how other countries choose to treat visiting dignitaries, however, one can only wonder...” He also emphasized that, in terms of Japan’s position on the comfort women and Takeshima issues, “We have the complete understanding of the US.”
All of this comes just after having confirmed the importance of Japan-US-Korea cooperation in order to apply “maximum pressure” to North Korea, which itself was made apparently clear following talks between Abe and Trump on November 6th. Within the Japanese government, there increasingly are feelings of exasperation concerning Korea’s attempts to strengthen its ties with the US, while simultaneously trying to weaken the close relationship shared between Japan and said country, which it does by highlighting various Japan-Korea issues.
This begs the question, what Trump must have thought of Moon’s style of domestically-focused hospitality toward foreign dignitaries.
Takahiro Namura, the Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau chief, and Norio Sakurai, the Sankei Shimbun Seoul bureau correspondent, have contributed to this article.