South Korea can’t resist shading Japan at its dinner for Trump

“So about tonight…”
“So about tonight…”
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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US president Donald Trump arrived in South Korea today (Nov. 7) after spending two days in Japan at the start of his lengthy Asia tour.

In contrast to Trump’s “wonderful” friend Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s relationship with the US president is noticeably less close. In addition to lacking a natural rapport, the two leaders have very different approaches toward North Korea—Moon has pressed for a softer approach in dealing with Pyongyang, and has repeatedly emphasized that his country should not be ignored when it comes to its belligerent northern neighbor.

While Abe went the whole nine yards to please Trump on his visit, for example by serving him a burger for lunch before the two leaders golfed, Moon’s approach is somewhat different. His wife personally prepared gifts for Trump’s wife Melania, including dried persimmon, while Moon is also serving up a much more traditional meal compared to Abe at this dinner with Trump, including soybean soup, grilled beef ribs made with a special 360-year-old soy sauce, grilled fish, and a grilled prawn.

The grilled prawn is not just any prawn—it’s one caught in disputed waters between Japan and South Korea off the island of Dokdo. The island, called Takeshima by Japan, is one of the biggest flashpoints in the long-running enmity between the two US allies, and it’s hard to underestimate Dokdo’s importance in South Korea. Just a few weeks ago, South Korea celebrated Dokdo Day on Oct. 25, which commemorates the day that the Korean Empire officially announced its jurisdiction over the island. South Korea also calls the island’s surrounding waters the East Sea, while Japan calls them the Sea of Japan—use the wrong term in a map and you could find yourself the target of complaints from angry Koreans.

Meanwhile the origin of the prawn was reported in (link in Japanese) the Japanese press as, “Takeshima, Shimane prefecture.”

Also present at the dinner (link in Japanese) is a woman who was forced to work as a sex slave for Japanese troops during World War II. The issue of these sex slaves, known as comfort women in Asia, is highly sensitive in Korea, and president Moon recently cast doubt on a deal struck between Moon’s predecessor and Abe in 2015, which included a fund to help victims.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed discomfort (link in Japanese) at Seoul’s decision to serve prawn from Dokdo/Takeshima, and said it was “necessary to avoid actions that would adversely affect relations between, Japan, the US, and South Korea.”

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that the soy sauce used in the dinner banquet was made in the same year as Benjamin Franklin’s birth.