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International relations

Unclear path to detente for Tokyo and Seoul on uprising anniversary

Moon pledges cooperation but keeps mum on wartime labor issue

South Korea and Japan can become "genuine friends" when "the pain of victims is substantively healed," President Moon Jae-in said Friday.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for cooperation with Tokyo to promote regional peace in marking the 100th year since a popular uprising against Japan's colonial rule but gave no ground on disputes over wartime labor and other historical grievances.

Collaboration with Japan will be "strengthened for the sake of peace on the Korean Peninsula," the Yonhap News Agency quoted Moon as saying at the commemoration of the March 1 independence movement.

Moon called for Seoul and Tokyo to "join hands while reflecting on history" and said that "when the pain of victims is substantively healed through concerted efforts," the two countries "will become genuine friends."

Yet the president did not spell out concrete steps to resolve issues like wartime "comfort women" or the recent court decisions ordering Japanese businesses to pay reparations to South Koreans forced to work during World War II.

The tone of the speech suggests that Moon may have reined in his criticism of Japan to avoid again provoking Tokyo. The South's National Assembly speaker, Moon See-hang, last month called for the Japanese emperor to apologize for the comfort women issue, drawing heavy fire from Japan.

Seoul's intention is "neither to instigate divisiveness by reopening old wounds now, nor to create issues for diplomatic conflicts with a neighboring country," the president said.

But Moon also repeatedly mentioned "wiping out the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators" as a "long-overdue undertaking." The expression is often used to attack conservative politicians, who liberals claim perpetuated systemic issues that were created when people who had worked with the Japanese during colonial rule were appointed to postwar governments.

South Koreans tend to separate today's Japan from the imperial force that once colonized the peninsula, and anti-Japanese sentiment has not risen drastically. The South Korean government has positioned the anniversary commemoration as a "forward-looking event that is not intended to criticize Japan."

Moon's speech alluded heavily to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Reconciliation with North Korea "need not be far away," said the leader, who also announced that Seoul would work with Washington toward resuming inter-Korean economic activities such as the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Park and tourism at Mount Kumgang, both on the northern side of the shared border.

Moon said "progress in inter-Korean relations will lead to the normalization of North Korea's relations with the United States and Japan," suggesting that mending fences with Tokyo is relatively low on Seoul's to-do list. While Japan views its three-way alliance with the U.S. and the South as a diplomatic priority, Seoul focuses on its ties with Pyongyang.

Japan lodged a complaint through diplomatic channels Friday over a description in Moon's speech of Koreans killed or wounded while taking part in the independence movement, claiming that the numbers cited were "not based in historical fact."

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