South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has called for better ties with Japan and again offered North Korea a wide-ranging package of economic assistance if it abandoned its nuclear programme.
Yoon made the remarks on Monday during a ceremony celebrating the end of Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Japan had ruled all of Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945, and its withdrawal was followed by a war five years later between rival Korean governments that resulted in the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea.
Yoon, a conservative who took office in May pledging to improve ties with Japan, described Tokyo on Monday as a partner in tackling global challenges and said the two nations must overcome disputes dating to the colonial era.
“In the past, we had to unshackle ourselves from Imperial Japan’s political control and defend our freedom. Today, Japan is our partner as we face common threats that challenge the freedom of global citizens,” the South Korean leader said.
“When South Korea and Japan move toward a common future and when the mission of our times align, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us solve the historical problems that exist between our two countries,” he said.
The historical disputes include Korean accusations that Japan forced South Koreans into industrial slavery and forced women to work in wartime brothels for its military.
But despite Yoon’s wish for better ties – especially in the face of China’s growing power in the region and North Korea’s rapidly accelerating nuclear and weapons programme – the two countries have so far struggled to negotiate solutions, particularly over the case of several South Korean court rulings that have ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labour. The Japanese firms have rejected the rulings, and the dispute could cause further diplomatic rupture if it results in the forced sales of the companies’ local assets.
On North Korea, Yoon repeated a promise to provide the neighbouring country with an “audacious” package of economic assistance if it stopped developing its nuclear programme and embarked on a “genuine and substantive” process of eliminating such weapons.
“We will implement a large-scale programme to provide food, providing assistance for establishing infrastructure for the production, transmission and distribution of electrical power, and carry out projects to modernise ports and airports to facilitate trade,” Yoon said, providing details of a plan he had first floated during his inaugural speech.
“We will also help improve North Korea’s agricultural production, provide assistance to modernise its hospitals and medical infrastructure, and carry out initiatives to allow for international investment and financial support,” he added, insisting that such programmes would “significantly” improve North Korean lives.
But the chances of North Korea accepting such an offer are slim, as it has long made it clear it will not make that trade. Instead, it has ramped up its testing activity in 2022, launching more than 30 ballistic missiles so far, including its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
US and South Korean officials have also repeatedly warned that North Korea is preparing to carry out what would be its seventh nuclear test.
While Washington has said it would push for additional sanctions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, the prospects for meaningful punitive measures are unclear. China and Russia recently vetoed US-sponsored resolutions at the United Nations Security Council that would have increased sanctions on the North over its ballistic missile testing this year.
In Tokyo, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also held a gathering to mark his country’s World War II surrender, and pledged to never again wage war.
“We will never again repeat the horrors of war. I will continue to live up to this determined oath,” the prime minister said at the gathering, which was attended by Emperor Naruhito. “In a world where conflicts are still unabated, Japan is a proactive leader in peace,” Kishida added.
But the conciliatory statements were dampened, however, by visits to a controversial war shrine by members of Kishida’s cabinet.
The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo honours 2.5 million war dead, mostly Japanese, who perished since the late 19th century – but it also enshrines senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal after World War II.
Visits to the shrine by government officials have long angered countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese military before and during the war, particularly South Korea and China.
On Monday, Sanae Takaichi, the hawkish minister for economic security, and Kenya Akiba, minister for reconstruction in the disaster-hit northern Tohoku region, offered their respects at the shrine.
In Seoul, the official reaction was swift, with officials expressing “deep disappointment” and regret.
“The Korean government is urging Japan’s responsible people to face history and show humble reflection and genuine reflection on the past through action,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.