South Korea's President Moon reiterates willingness to talk with Japan

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in also said South Korea will work with Japan for the success of the Tokyo Olympics. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - South Korean President Moon Jae-in has reiterated his willingness to mend frayed ties with Japan, adding that his country will work with its "very important neighbour" for the success of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The sports bonanza could also provide an opportunity for dialogue with North Korea to be revived, he noted.

"The Korean government is always ready to sit down and have talks with the Japanese government," Mr Moon said in a televised speech on Monday (Mar 1) to mark the 1919 uprising against Japanese colonialism.

"I am confident that if we put our heads together in the spirit of trying to understand each other's perspectives, we will also be able to wisely resolve issues of the past."

Ties between South Korea and Japan hit rock bottom in the past few years over historical issues, such as South Korea's Supreme Court ordering Japanese firms in 2018 to compensate forced labour victims, which triggered a trade spat, and a lower Seoul court ruling last month that Japan must compensate 12 comfort women, or victims of wartime sexual slavery.

With a new Biden administration in the United States set to boost trilateral cooperation with allies Japan and South Korea to counter China and North Korea, Seoul has made a series of conciliatory gestures towards Tokyo in hopes of improving ties.

But Japan has been unresponsive so far, sticking to the line that all historical issues have been settled under the 1965 treaty that normalised bilateral relations.

On Monday, President Moon stressed the importance of Japan-Korea cooperation, noting that the two countries have helped each other to advance growth.

"Bilateral cooperation will not only benefit our two countries above all else but also facilitate stability and common prosperity in North-east Asia and the trilateral Korea-United States-Japan partnership," he said.

"Now is the time to surmount the Covid-19 crisis together... I hope that both Korea and Japan will be able to revive our economies and jointly create a new order in the post-Covid-19 era through even more robust cooperation."

Mr Moon also voiced hopes for Korea to team up with Japan for the upcoming Olympics, which he said "may serve as an opportunity for dialogue between Korea and Japan, South and North Korea, North Korea and Japan, and North Korea and the United States".

He pledged efforts for denuclearisation and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula and urged North Korea, and Japan, to join the North-east Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health that South Korea launched last December with the US, China, Russia and Mongolia.

The tone of his speech, which marked the 102nd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, was a departure from the usual harsh condemnation of Japan's atrocities during its colonisation of South Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Ewha Womans University's associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley noted that the annual speech "calls on Japan to squarely face history with a victims-centred approach, but also expresses a desire for future-oriented policies".

What stood out this year, he said, was Mr Moon stressing the need for international cooperation against Covid-19 and giving a nod to US-South Korea-Japan trilateral coordination that the Biden administration "considers essential" for dealing with North Korea and China.

However, Assoc Prof Easley warned that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's administration is "unlikely to be moved" by Mr Moon's overture or his suggestion that the Tokyo Olympics serve as a platform for dialogue resumption with North Korea.

"Most Japanese see the current rift in relations as the product of South Korean court rulings and broken agreements that Moon must first address domestically," said Assoc Prof Easley.

"But Suga, anticipating US pressure to repair ties with Seoul, could at least have Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi meet with (newly dispatched South Korean Ambassador to Japan) Kang Chang-il in Tokyo."

The next step, he added, would be for South Korea to provide "credible assurances" that its courts will not liquidate Japanese assets in the forced labour row.

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