South Korea's Defense Ministry dropped its description of Japan as a "partner" in the latest defense white paper published Tuesday, a move painted by local media as a "downgrade" that reflects worsening ties between the two countries.
In the previous white paper published two years ago, South Korea and Japan were described as "geographically and culturally close neighbors as well as partners cooperating for global peace and prosperity."
The latest white paper states the two countries are "close neighbors that should cooperate not only for the two countries' relationships but also for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world."
A ministry official said in a briefing that given Japan's stronger export controls implemented against South Korea in 2019, the ministry decided it was "reasonable" to call Japan a "neighbor" and stop at that.
The downgrading in description was not the first.
Biennially published South Korean defense white papers used to state the two countries "share the basic values of liberal democracy and market economies." But the white paper published in 2019 -- the first one released under the government of President Moon Jae In -- no longer contained that description.
Japan-South Korea relations have long been difficult due to Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. But their ties have soured considerably in recent years, particularly after South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate groups of Koreans for wartime forced labor.
The latest white paper, meanwhile, blamed Japan for stalemating ties with South Korea by making "unilateral announcements that misrepresented facts" about such issues as Japan's claim to a pair of South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan and a 2018 close encounter between a Japanese surveillance plane and a South Korean destroyer.
While pledging to "resolutely deal with unilateral and arbitrary measures taken by Japan," the white paper said South Korea will "continue cooperating" with Japan on "issues of common concern."
South Korea's description of North Korea in the white paper remained unchanged from the previous one, which deleted the word "enemy" to reflect an improvement in inter-Korean relations following several summits between their leaders in 2018.