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 1910-45 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 US military allies in Asia and key to the US strategic “pivot” to the region.
Last week, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia Danny Russel urged Seoul and Tokyo to find a way past the current diplomatic impasse.
“We continue to stress the need for prudence and restraint, for all parties to take steps that will promote healing,” Russel told a Senate subcommittee.
He held up the model of Japan and the United States in overcoming the bitterness of World War II to nurture a close friendship.
“All parties can contribute to a reversal of the current atmosphere and the creation of a positive trend,” he added.
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.
But the Abe government has repeatedly said the evidence given by the women that forms the basis of the 1993 apology needs to be re-examined.
Despite Abe’s deep unpopularity in South Korea, a survey published in February by the Asan Institute think-tank in Seoul showed half of the Korean public supported the idea of a South Korea-Japan summit and nearly 60 percent wanted Park to take a proactive role in improving ties.