June 17, 2015 / 6:18 AM / 3 years ago

South Korea foreign minister to make first trip to Japan in four years

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) - South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will visit Tokyo on Sunday, the first such trip in four years, as the U.S. allies prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties amid a chill because of feuds over the wartime past.

Yun will meet Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Sunday and attend a ceremony at the South Korean embassy the next day, the anniversary of a 1965 treaty normalizing diplomatic ties, South Korea’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday. The visit was simultaneously announced in Tokyo.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have been cool, mainly because of disputes over the legacy of World War Two and Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula.

The issue of “comfort women”, as those forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels are euphemistically known in Japan, has been especially thorny. The neighbors are also locked in a dispute over tiny islands that lie between them.

U.S. officials have urged them to repair ties as the United States and its Asian allies confront the challenge of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said there had been “considerable progress” on the issue of the women forced to work as prostitutes, and the two sides were “in the final stage of our negotiations”.

She did not elaborate. South Korean officials have said there had been “meaningful progress” in high-level discussions between the two countries over the women.

A Japanese government source with knowledge of the matter, however, said there had been little progress and a breakthrough appeared unlikely when Yun came to Tokyo.

“We will of course welcome the Korean foreign minister cordially and warmly ... but I don’t know how much progress we will be able to make because we don’t see any sign of flexibility on the Korean side,” the official told Reuters.

The “comfort women” issue has long been a thorn in ties.

South Korea says Japan has not done enough to atone, while many Japanese conservatives argue there is no proof of direct military or government involvement in human trafficking for brothels.

Abe has said he stood by a landmark 1993 statement acknowledging Japanese authorities’ involvement in coercing the women. He repeated that stance during an April visit to the United States.

Reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Robert Birsel

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