By Hyonhee Shin and Linda Sieg
SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – On the anniversary of Japan’s World War Two surrender, South Korea’s president on Thursday urged Japan to contemplate its wartime past and offered to engage in talks to repair strained ties, while Japan pledged to never repeat the horrors of war.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are arguably at their lowest ebb since they normalised ties in 1965, strained over the issue of South Korean forced labour during World War Two and a bitter trade row.
In a speech marking Korea’s independence from Japanese rule, Moon toned down his recent harsh rhetoric towards Japan.
“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 neighbouring countries,” Moon said in a nationally televised address.
“Better late than never: if Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday sent a ritual monetary offering to the controversial Yasukuni shrine for war dead in Tokyo and pledged to never repeat the horrors of war. He did not visit in person, an act which would have sparked a heated reaction from Seoul.
Bitter memories of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of Korea have long plagued bilateral ties.
Abe, speaking at a ceremony honouring war dead, said the country had engraved the “lessons of history deep in our hearts”, and pledged never to repeat the devastation of war.
“To create a peaceful new era full of hope, we will spare no effort in working with the international community,” Abe said.
Relations between Washington’s two Asia allies deteriorated after a ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court last year that Japanese companies should compensate South Koreans conscripted as forced labourers during World War Two. Tokyo says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty normalising ties.
The chill deepened when Japan ended South Korea’s fast-track trade status this month, prompting Seoul to follow suit.
Tokyo has cited security concerns for its tightening of controls on exports to South Korea and denied it was retaliation over the forced labour feud. On Thursday, Japan’s trade minister repeated his call for Seoul to explain its reason for revoking Japan’s preferential export status.
Japanese and South Korean vice foreign ministers are likely to meet this week in Guam to discuss the issue, Japanese and South Korean media have reported.
Japan’s new emperor Naruhito, speaking at the same ceremony as Abe, expressed “deep remorse” over the country’s wartime past and prayed for global peace in remarks that echoed those of his father, Akihito.
Naruhito, 59, became Japan’s first monarch born after the war when he inherited the throne in May following Akihito’s abdication.
Past visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni have outraged South Korea and China because the shrine honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals.
China’s relations with Japan have also long been haunted by what Beijing sees as Tokyo’s failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during World War Two.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tomomi Inada, a former defence minister and now a special aide to Abe, made the monetary offering, called a “tamagushi-ryo”, on the premier’s behalf, domestic media said.
“The peace and prosperity of our country is due to those heroes who gave their lives for their homeland and I express my gratitude and respect,” Inada quoted Abe as saying, according to domestic media.
Abe has only visited the shrine in person once since taking office in 2012 but has regularly sent offerings on Aug. 15 and during the shrine’s spring and autumn festivals.
A steady stream of visitors paid their respects at Yasukuni under partly cloudy skies as temperatures soared. Groups including members of a tiny nationalist party and critics of the U.S. military presence on Japan’s southern Okinawa island gathered near the entrance.
Police, some in anti-riot gear, patrolled nearby.
A sign inside the grounds said activities such as hoisting flags, demonstrating or destroying property were banned.
“The people enshrined here fought for Japan and we have come to express our gratitude and to show them our resolve to build a better Japan,” said Yoshiko Matsuura, 71, a former ward assembly member from Tokyo visiting with other local politicians.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Tim Kelly, Chris Gallagher and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Editing by Michael Perry)