President Moon Jae-in speaks during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in said Monday that South Korea will seek dialogue with Japan to find a solution to Tokyo's wartime sexual slavery amid renewed tensions following a recent court ruling on the thorny issue.
During his New Year's press conference, Moon also renewed his call for a diplomatic solution to the issue of Japan's colonial-era forced labor, while stressing his two-track approach separating historical issues from efforts to forge "future-oriented" bilateral ties.
His remarks came amid growing concerns that relations between Seoul and Tokyo could deteriorate to a new low, as the historical issues stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule came to the fore with no plausible solutions in sight.
"Based on the agreement, (South Korea) will hold consultations with Japan to find a solution that victims would agree to," Moon said, referring to the 2015 government-to-government deal to address the sexual slavery issue.
Tensions flared anew earlier this month, as Japan has railed against a Seoul court ruling, which ordered Tokyo to make reparations of 100 million won ($90,514) to 12 sexual slavery victims. Tokyo claims the issue was settled under the 2015 deal.
Under the deal, Tokyo offered 1 billion yen ($9.6 million) for a foundation to support the victims and said that it "felt strongly" about its responsibility for the "issue involving the Japanese military that has left deep scars on the honor and dignity of many women."
But the deal is seen as tattered, as its credibility has been eroded amid criticism that it failed to fully reflect victims' opinions.
Moon called the recent court ruling on the sexual slavery issue "a little embarrassing," as it came amid the two countries facing a series of nettlesome issues, including a spat over Japan's export curbs.
The president also voiced concerns over an ongoing legal process to forcibly sell off assets of Japanese companies to compensate forced labor victims and doubled down on his call for a diplomatic solution.
"I don't think that liquidating (assets of Japanese firms) through forcible enforcement means is desirable for bilateral relations," Moon said. "Before reaching that stage, what should take precedence is finding a diplomatic solution, which plaintiffs can agree to."
Historical tensions have shown no signs of abating, with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi decrying the ruling with remarks that it has caused an "abnormal, totally unthinkable" situation in terms of international law and bilateral ties, according to Kyodo News.
In a parliamentary session, Motegi also renewed Tokyo's territorial claim to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo -- in a reminder of the tough road ahead in efforts to improve bilateral ties.
Seoul hit back, protesting Tokyo's claim to Dokdo and calling for its immediate retraction.
"The Japanese government must stop the futile attempt concerning Dokdo, which is clearly our inherent territory historically, geographically and by international law," Choi Young-sam, the foreign ministry's spokesman, said in a commentary.
"It should reflect deeply on the fact that the right historical perception is a foundation for the development of South Korea-Japan relations," he added.
On Motegi's remarks on the court ruling in favor of the former sex slaves, Choi called for Japan to "pool wisdom together" to restore the honor of victims and continue "constructive and future-oriented" bilateral cooperation.
The rise in tensions between the two countries came as Seoul is seen as seeking to mend relations with Tokyo ahead of the launch of the new US administration in Washington, which is expected to focus on strengthening regional alliances. (Yonhap)