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International relations

Moon doubles down on historical disputes with Japan

South Korean leader eager for progress ahead of milestone year

South Korean President Moon Jae-in gives a speech on the 99th anniversary of the independence movement against Japan on March 1.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday stressed his commitment to addressing historical disputes with Japan and to improving ties with North Korea as a milestone year for the country approaches.

At a ceremony to commemorate the 99th anniversary of an independence movement against Japan, Moon said he will turn what he calls "the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea" next year into "a new starting line for the establishment of a permanent peace regime and prosperity based on peace."

Many South Koreans, particularly conservatives, consider the establishment of Syngman Rhee's government in 1948 as the official founding of the country. But for Moon, modern South Korea began with a provisional government established in exile in 1919, though it never gained international recognition. His stance is likely intended to advance his image as a sincere advocate for the Korean people.

He also commented on the territorial dispute over the islets called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan. Japan's refusal to acknowledge the islets as South Korean territory is "no different from rejecting self-reflection of [its past] imperialistic invasion," he said.

Moon called the treatment of wartime "comfort women" a "crime against humanity." He said that the Japanese government as the perpetrator could not declare the issue resolved, rejecting the premise of a 2015 agreement intended to "finally and irreversibly" settle the issue.

Still, "I do not demand any special treatment from Japan," he said. While the South Korean government claims the 2015 deal does not solve the comfort women issue, it has not moved to scrap or renegotiate what it still considers a formal bilateral agreement.

Moon expressed hopes for South Korea and Japan "to move forward toward the future together based on sincere self-reflection and reconciliation." He seeks to separate historical disputes from other aspects of bilateral ties in order to build a forward-looking relationship.

But the comfort women issue remains a major flashpoint for the countries, especially as the 2015 deal loses momentum. Moon's remarks "go against the bilateral agreement, and are completely unacceptable," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Moon on Thursday did not touch on North Korea's nuclear and missile development and human rights abuses. But he expressed hopes for creating a peaceful economic community on the Korean Peninsula.

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