SEOUL: Top South Korean and Japanese diplomats held talks in Seoul on Wednesday as the United States pushed its two key Asian allies to improve badly strained ties.
The meeting between South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-Yong and his Japanese counterpart Akitaka Saiki came with relations between Seoul and Tokyo at their lowest ebb for years.
At the core of the current stand-off are emotive, unresolved issues related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule, its wartime use of South Korean women in military brothels and an island territorial dispute.
The situation was exacerbated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial war shrine in December that drew strong protests from Seoul and Beijing.
“It is an occasion to test whether South Korea-Japan relations would work out in the future,” Cho told reporters before the talks began.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has ruled out a summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for “past wrongdoings” and recent surveys have shown that the Japanese leader is more unpopular with South Koreans than North Korean supremo Kim Jong-Un.
The rift has been viewed with growing alarm in Washington. South Korea and Japan are the two major United States (US) military allies in Asia and key to the US strategic “pivot” to the region.
South Korea has accused Japan of showing insufficient remorse for wartime abuses—particularly the use of sex slaves, known as “comfort women.”
Japanese politicians express exasperation at the repeated requests for contrition, pointing to numerous apologies and a 1965 agreement that normalized relations and included a large payment to Seoul.
In 1993, after hearing testimony from 16 Korean women, Japan issued the Kono statement acknowledging official complicity in forcing women to serve soldiers in Japanese army brothels.
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, were involved.