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Moon Jae-in vows to mend ties with Xi, rejects sex slavery deal with Abe

President Moon Jae-in and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday agreed to take steps to restore the two countries’ relations strained by a dispute over Seoul’s decision to house a US missile shield.

In their first, 40-minute phone call, Moon raised the issue of China’s economic retaliation over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system here, offering to dispatch a delegation to solely discuss the matter.

Xi, who requested the call in celebration of Moon’s inauguration, invited the Korean president to a summit in Beijing.

President Moon Jae-in sits in his Cheong Wa Dae office on Thursday, talking by phone with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in sits in his Cheong Wa Dae office on Thursday, talking by phone with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (Yonhap)

“I’m aware of China’s interests (in THAAD), and we should work together to understand each other better,” Moon was quoted as saying by his senior press secretary Yoon Young-chan at a news briefing.

“I hope you pay attention to our struggling companies in China. The THAAD issue would be easier to be resolved only if North Korea does not stage additional provocations.”

In response, Xi said he would also step up efforts on North Korea-related matters, Yoon noted. Xi welcomed Moon’s envoy offer, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a separate briefing in Beijing later in the day, displaying hopes for the relationship to “return to an orbit where it is healthy, stable and developing.”

Xi is the second head of state to telephone the newly minted president, who took office Wednesday, following US President Donald Trump. Later in the day, Moon spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With the North’s evolving nuclear threats, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula. Moon stressed the issue should be tackled through a “comprehensive, step-by-step” approach, which he introduced as an election pledge, while Xi expressed “empathy and agreement,” Yoon said.

Xi also offered condolences over the death of 10 South Korean kindergarteners during a car crash Tuesday in Weihai, Shandong province, promising assistance to properly handle the case.

Though they have never met, Xi said he had been observing Moon’s ascent “with great interest” and his “atypical career and various thoughts and viewpoints left a deep impression,” the secretary said.

During a 25-minute talk with Abe, Moon displayed skepticism over a December 2015 settlement on the wartime sex slavery row, signaling a tough road ahead for the checkered ties despite growing needs for security cooperation.

Despite progress in economic and sociocultural exchanges, historical legacy issues have posed an “obstacle” for the relationship’s maturation, Moon said, urging Abe to “look squarely” at history.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Yonhap)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Yonhap)

“Japanese leaders need an attitude that they uphold the spirit of past apologies and declarations,” Moon said.

“The reality is that a majority of our people cannot accept the agreement emotionally. The government has limited authority in resolving what happened in the private sector, so we need more time.”

The president was referring to a girl statue erected by civic groups in December in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan in commemoration of the Korean women forced into sex slavery. Tokyo has staged a stern protest, arguing it defies the agreement and recalling its ambassador to Seoul and the Busan consul general.

Abe, in response, said Moon should continue the accord’s implementation “with responsibilities,” according to Japanese media.

The prime minister also requested Moon’s visit to Tokyo and an early trilateral summit involving Xi.

Moon has vowed to renegotiate the deal, which has drawn robust backlash from victims and the public alike. He called it “unacceptable” and “wrong” during an interview with The Korea Herald last month, criticizing the Park Geun-hye administration’s failure to extract Tokyo’s acknowledgment of legal responsibility and compensation and to consult with the victims ahead of the announcement.

Late Wednesday, Moon also held a 30-minute telephone conversation with Trump, during which he called the alliance the “foundation” of South Korea’s foreign policy and security and touted Trump’s focus on the North’s nuclear problem.

Trump expressed respect for South Koreans’ choice of Moon as the new president, inviting him to Washington, while saying the nuclear standoff could be resolved despite challenges, Cheong Wa Dae, said in a press release.

By Shin Hyon-hee (