SEOUL/TOKYO -- The leaders of Japan and South Korea gave contrasting speeches Saturday at ceremonies in the two capitals to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia.
At a colorful event attended by veterans to mark what is called Liberation Day in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in said his country is ready to talk with Japan over the issue of Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during the war.
"Our government is ready to sit down with the Japanese government anytime, keeping the door open widely for negotiation," Moon told an audience in Seoul.
However, Moon said he would respect the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling that ordered Nippon Steel to pay reparation to four Korean workers.
"The Supreme Court's ruling has the utmost legal authority and execution power in the territory of the Republic of Korea," Moon said. "The government respects the judiciary's ruling."
The fractious relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has deteriorated over the wartime labor issue. Last week, Nippon Steel appealed against the court's ruling to liquidate its assets in South Korea, and suspended the sale of its stake in PNR, a joint venture with Korean steelmaker Posco.
At a somber ceremony in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged never to repeat the tragedy of war, while Emperor Naruhito expressed "deep remorse" over his country's wartime past.
Referring to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Emperor Naruhito said: "I sincerely hope that we are all working together to overcome this difficult situation and will continue to pursue happiness and peace." The emperor's speech basically followed previous speeches at the annual ceremony, but this year he specifically added words about the pandemic.
Abe emphasized Japan's commitment to peace and the nation's desire to have a larger presence on the global stage.
"Over the last 75 years since the end of the war, our country has consistently valued peace," he said. "Under the banner of proactive contribution to peace, our country is determined to play an even greater role in resolving the challenges the world faces, working together with the international community," he added, stressing his resolve to overcome the pandemic.
The prime minister did not make any reference to current diplomatic issues.
Both the events in Seoul and Tokyo were scaled back from previous years, and conducted with strict social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier on Saturday, members of Abe's cabinet visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the country's war dead -- and is seen by neighboring countries as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
While Abe himself sent a ritual offering, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi became the first Cabinet member since 2016 to visit the shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary. His visit was followed by at least three other ministers.
Moon also said that South Korea has been successful in overcoming export restrictions imposed by Japan on key materials for its semiconductor and display industries. His country has invested billions of dollars in developing its own materials to reduce reliance on Japan.
"We overcame the crisis of Japan's export controls. We changed the crisis into an opportunity to move forward as 'a country that nobody can shake.' We became independent in the fields of materials, parts and equipment, and attracting some foreign investments," he said.
Even so, Moon's domestic support is waning over perceived poor policies to stem the country's rising property prices. Moon's approval rate in Gallup Korea poll fell to 39% in the second week of August, down from 44% a week earlier and marking the lowest level since his inauguration three years ago.
The South Korean leader also expressed his willingness to talk with North Korea, saying inter-Korean cooperation is the best security policy to be safe from the North's nuclear arsenal. Cross-border relations have soured since last year after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused Moon of failing to mediate in the denuclearization talks with U.S. President Donald Trump.
North Korea, meanwhile, on Saturday urged Japan to "make a sincere apology and reparation" for the "sexual slavery" inflicted on Korean women during Japan's occupation of the peninsula (1910-1945), according to a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.