South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Wednesday that Japan has transformed into a partner from a "militaristic aggressor in the past," highlighting his readiness to improve bilateral ties.

In a speech at a government ceremony to commemorate the launch in 1919 of the popular independence movement against Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Yoon said Japan has become a "partner that shares the same universal values" as South Korea, especially with regard to security and the economy.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (center L) and his wife Kim Kun Hee (center R) attend a ceremony commemorating the 1919 independence movement against Japanese colonial rule, in Seoul on March 1, 2023. (For editoral use only)(Yonhap/Kyodo)

He also said that trilateral cooperation involving South Korea, the United States and Japan "has become more important than ever" in overcoming security crises, including North Korea's growing nuclear threat.

Wednesday's speech did not include specific remarks on thorny issues related to Japan, such as compensation for wartime Korean workers.

Ties between the two countries deteriorated after South Korea's top court in 2018 ordered Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp. to pay compensation over forced labor during the colonial era.

The firms have refused to comply with the rulings as Japan's government has said all issues stemming from the colonization were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.

The two countries are now engaged in talks on resolving the issue. Seoul proposed in January that a South Korean foundation could pay money to the plaintiffs on behalf of the Japanese companies, while also calling for a "sincere response" from Tokyo.

Tokyo is now considering expressing remorse based on past statements.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said that Seoul is "working to solve the problem without further delay" and will "promptly prepare a rational proposal for resolving it."

But his government is struggling with deep-seated opposition in South Korea to any proposal that does not guarantee compensation in cash by the Japanese firms.

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