SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae-in offered an olive branch to Japan yesterday to end an ongoing trade dispute, saying Seoul will "gladly join hands" if Tokyo wants to talk.
Mr Moon, in a nationally televised speech, also downplayed the threat posed by North Korea's recent short-range ballistic launches and expressed hope that Washington and Pyongyang would soon resume nuclear negotiations.
"If a country weaponises a sector where it has a comparative advantage, the order of peaceful free trade inevitably suffers. A country that accomplished growth first must not kick the ladder away while others are following in its footsteps," Mr Moon said in reference to Japan.
"If Japan - better late than never - chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands," he said.
Mr Moon's speech at a ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II came amid heightened public anger and a diplomatic fallout over Tokyo's recent moves to impose trade curbs on South Korea.
Yesterday, Japan asked South Korea for further explanations on why it will be removed from a list of countries entitled to preferential treatment in trade.
"The reasoning and details are not clear so we have been seeking further explanations from South Korea," Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said.
But Mr Seko said Japan is not planning to seek bilateral negotiations, adding: "It's not something that can be decided or changed through consultations."
South Korea plans to remove Japan around September from its list of 29 nations that have an expedited application process for exports, placing it in a newly created category.
Seoul has said it is open to consultations if requested by Tokyo, while seeking the public's views before the change takes effect.
Bilateral tensions over trade have spiked in recent months and Seoul's move comes as Tokyo, for security reasons, acts to take South Korea off its list of nations with preferential status that can buy products that could be diverted for military use.
Tokyo has already tightened its export controls on some materials used in making chips and displays for smartphones and television.
Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponising trade to target its export-dependent economy and retaliate against South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to offer reparations to South Koreans forced into labour during World War II. Tokyo's measures struck a nerve in South Korea, where many still harbour resentment over Japan's ruthless colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
After threatening stern countermeasures and declaring that South Korea would "never lose" to Japan again, Mr Moon has taken a more conciliatory tone in the past week amid relief in Seoul that the impact of Japan's trade measures might not be as bad as initially thought.
There have also been concerns that the government's nationalistic calls for unity were allowing public anger towards Japan to reach dangerous levels.
Still, tens of thousands of people joined anti-Japan protests yesterday. Thousands dressed in raincoats marched in heavy rain towards Japan's embassy in Seoul.
The trade dispute comes as South Korea's relations with North Korea worsen.
Mr Moon also called for new negotiations between the two Koreas and the United States "at the earliest possible date".