South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday offered an olive branch to Japan to end a tense trade dispute, saying Seoul will “gladly join hands” if Tokyo accepts calls to resolve the situation through dialogue.
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.
Moon’s speech at a ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II came amid heightened public anger over Tokyo’s recent moves to impose trade curbs on South Korea.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans are expected to march in anti-Japan protests planned throughout the day on Thursday.
Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to target its export-dependent economy and retaliate against South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to offer reparations for ageing South Korean plaintiffs for their World War II forced labour.
Tokyo’s measures struck a nerve in South Korea, where many people still harbour strong resentment over Japan’s ruthless colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
After threatening stern countermeasures and declaring that South Korea would “never lose” to Japan again, Mr Moon had taken a more conciliatory tone over the past week amid relief in Seoul that the impact of Japan’s trade measures may not be as bad as initially thought.
There has also been concerns that the government’s nationalistic calls for unity in face of what Mr Moon previously described as an “unprecedented” crisis were allowing public anger toward Japan to reach dangerous levels.
Mr Moon said on Thursday: “If a country weaponizes 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,” he added at the ceremony at the Independence Hall in the city of Cheonan.
“If Japan better late than never chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands.”
South Korea’s trade row with Japan came amid worsening bilateral relations with North Korea, which has been ignoring Seoul’s calls for dialogue and tested a slew of new short-range weapons in recent weeks that potentially expands its abilities targets throughout South Korea, including US military bases there.
Experts say Pyongyang’s recent launches are aimed at building leverage ahead of the resumption of nuclear negotiations with the United States – which have stalled in recent months – and also dialling up pressure on Seoul to coax major concessions from Washington on its behalf.
Mr Moon said on Thursday: “In spite of a series of worrying actions taken by North Korea recently, the momentum for dialogue remains unshaken, which is a significant result of my government’s peace process on the Korean Peninsula.”
“Now is the time for both Koreas and the United States to focus on resuming working-level negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington at the earliest possible date.”