TOKYO (Reuters) - As Japan and South Korea near their 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the two are sending conflicting signals over whether they can resolve a feud over "comfort women" forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels that has chilled ties.
The fraught relations are complicating efforts to boost security cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, both staunch U.S. allies, as the region copes with an unpredictable North Korea and an assertive China.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will visit Tokyo on Sunday, the first such trip in four years, for talks with his Japanese counterpart and then attend a ceremony on Monday marking the anniversary of a 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral ties.
In South Korea, Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula and the legacy World War Two remains a highly sensitive subject. The issue of "comfort women", as the victims are euphemistically known in Japan, is especially thorny.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not met one-on-one since taking office.
Park told the Washington Post negotiations on "comfort women" were "in the final stage".
But Japanese officials are far from optimistic. Park's remarks may have been intended to impress Washington but didn't reflect real progress, said one Japanese government source.
"I am not at all optimistic, unless at the last moment, Korea wants to bring an 'omiyage' (gift) as a guest," the source told Reuters.
Japan says the matter of compensation for the women was settled under the 1965 treaty. In addition, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized in a 1993 statement acknowledging authorities' involvement in coercing them.
In 1995, Japan created a fund to make payments to the women from donations, budgeted money for their welfare support and sent letters of apology from successive premiers.
Abe, a former critic of the 1993 statement, now says he will uphold it, but South Korea says Japan has not atoned enough. Many Japanese conservatives say there is no proof that authorities directly coerced the women.
There are some signs of improvement. Defence ministers met last month for the first time in four years. But a pact to share military intelligence remains elusive, so Tokyo and Seoul must currently do so via Washington.
Professor Kim Kyung-min at Hanyang University in Seoul said the two top leaders needed to meet, adding: "For the United States, they need to start moving on three-way security cooperation and that’s why Washington is urging the two allies to patch up their ties."
Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Jeremy Laurence