May 20, 2020 13:03
Japan refers to South Korea as an "important ally" for the first time in three years in its latest diplomatic policy paper. The new Diplomatic Blue Book for 2020 also omits mention a spat back in 2018 triggered by Japanese spy planes buzzing South Korean warships. But it continues to claim sovereignty over South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo.
The naval spat was cited in last year's Blue Book as a factor in worsening bilateral relations. Japan's Foreign Ministry did not say why the spat was not included in the latest edition, but the move could reflect some progress in icy relations between the neighbors, which are locked in an uneasy alliance with the U.S. against China and North Korea in the region.
Until 2017 South Korea was formulaically referred to as the "most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan." But that reference was deleted in a huff in 2018 as relations froze over historical and other issues.
Bilateral relations soured over compensation claims for Koreans forced to labor for Japan during World War II, and the 2019 Blue Book described ties as facing "very difficult circumstances."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also referred to South Korea as the "most important neighbor" for the first time in three years during a speech to the Diet in January, and the latest diplomatic paper appears to have followed suit.
A diplomatic source in Seoul said, "The Abe administration has found itself in a tight spot due to its mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic. It looks like it doesn't want diplomatic friction to make things more difficult for it."
But the Blue Book insists on all the other perpetual sticking points -- Dokdo, and the refusal to admit state responsibility for wartime forced labor and sex slavery. It claims South Korea "illegally occupies" Dokdo.
It also defends a decision last year to make it more difficult for South Korean businesses to import key materials used to manufacture microchips, claiming the move was "necessary" to "adequately manage" trade of dual-use products and technology.
The Foreign Ministry here summoned Hirohisa Soma, a senior Japanese Embassy official, on Tuesday for the ritual dressing-down. A ministry spokesperson said Seoul demanded that Tokyo "immediately retract" the "repeated and unjust claim" to Dokdo.
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