September 19, 2014 / 4:04 AM / 3 years ago

Japan PM Abe seeks summit with South Korea's Park amid frosty ties

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked South Korean President Park Geun-hye for a summit meeting in a letter handed over on Friday, seeking a breakthrough in the two countries’ frosty ties over Japan’s wartime past, including running military brothels.

Yoshiro Mori, Japan's former Prime Minister and president of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee of Olympic and Paralympic games, speaks during a signing ceremony making Bridgestone Corp. an official TOP worldwide Olympic partner through the 2024 Olympic Games, in Tokyo June 13, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Abe, in the letter handed to Park by former Japanese premier Yoshiro Mori who was visiting Seoul, mentioned the 50th anniversary of the neighbors’ diplomatic ties next year and said he hoped for efforts by the two sides to improve relations.

“Prime Minister Abe said in the letter ... that he eagerly hoped to be able to meet on the occasion of an international conference to be held this fall,” Park’s office said in a statement.

The two leaders are expected to attend the summit meeting of Asian and European leaders in Italy in October and of leaders of the APEC grouping in November in Beijing.

Relations have chilled over the past two years, chiefly over the issue of Korean “comfort women” - those forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War Two.

Park did not immediately respond to Abe’s invitation to a summit but said it was important for genuine efforts to be made to restore the honor of the victims of wartime sexual slavery, who are ageing and are “in the final 55 minutes” of their lives.

On Tuesday, Park called for a “courageous decision” by Tokyo to improve ties between the Asian neighbors, in an exclusive interview with Reuters.

The Japanese government welcomed the meeting between Mori and Park. “We hope that this visit will lead to an improvement in bilateral relations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday.

Mori has political connections in South Korea after serving as the head of a group of Japanese members of parliament promoting friendship between the two countries, and he was warmly received by Park.

Abe has called for a summit with Park since becoming Japan’s prime minister but, apart from a three-way meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in March, relations have remained chilly.

South Korea maintains that Japan has not sufficiently atoned for the suffering of “comfort women” and has protested against Tokyo’s review of a landmark 1993 apology, which acknowledged the involvement of Japanese authorities in coercing the women.

Abe also enraged Seoul with his visit and repeated offerings to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal.

Abe’s government has said it adheres to the 1993 apology but there was no direct documentary evidence that Japanese military or government officials were directly involved in kidnapping the women. Abe has also said it is natural to pray for the war dead who sacrificed their lives for the nation.

Editing by Linda Sieg, Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez

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