SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae-in sought to cool tensions with Japan, calling for talks on the escalating dispute over export curbs that threaten both countries’ economies as well as regional security.
In a speech in Seoul to mark the 74th anniversary of the end of Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945), Moon reflected on the neighbors’ shared history and expressed hope for cooperation over trade.
“It is better late than never,” said Moon, wearing a traditional Korean white robe. “If Japan comes to the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands. We will strive with Japan to create an East Asia that engages in fair trade and cooperation.”
The trade spat began on July 4 when the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe restricted exports of three key materials used in the production of semiconductors and displays. Japan followed up last month by removing South Korea from a “whitelist” of trusted of trading partners — saying that Seoul is failing to control its strategic materials.
In an apparent tit-for-tat move, South Korea dropped Japan from its own export fast-track list on Monday. Seoul sees Tokyo as retaliating over court rulings in South Korea ordering Japanese companies to compensate Koreans forced to work for them during World War II.
Despite his conciliatory tone, Moon also made it clear he blamed Japan for the dispute, calling Japan’s export restrictions “unwarranted.”
“Within the international division of labor, if any country weaponizes a sector where it has a comparative advantage, the peaceful free trade order will inevitably suffer damages,” Moon said. “A country that achieved growth first must not kick the ladder away while others are following in its footsteps.”
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Asia policy, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Moon’s olive branch is unlikely to have any immediate import on the current tensions because of Tokyo’s entrenched position.
“But it will give both South Korea and the United States a new lever to pressure Japan to de-escalate and come to the negotiating table,” Oba said. “If the allies follow up on the speech with concrete and creative steps to de-escalate, that could make a positive impact. But until then, this is just a brief sigh of relief in a situation that remains very tense.”
Citing wartime atrocities, Moon also demanded that Japan take a humble approach to regional affairs.
“We hope that Japan will play a leading role together in facilitating peace and prosperity in East Asia while it contemplates a past that brought misfortune to its neighboring countries,” Moon said.
But the legacy of the war still hangs heavily across East Asia. On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an offering at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine on a day that also marks the anniversary of the end of World War II. The shrine creates controversy across Asia as some Class-A war criminals are enshrined there.
The liberal president also touched on denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea, saying their next summit will be the most critical moment for the peace on the Korean Peninsula. He said that reunification with North Korea would be true independence, and sought to create “One Korea” by 2045, the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.
Andrew Sharp, Nikkei Asian Review deputy politics and economic news editor, contributed to this story.