SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on Monday to try to resolve as soon as possible a row over “comfort women” forced into prostitution in Japanese wartime military brothels, a feud that has been a major obstacle to better ties between two of Washington’s key allies.
Abe announced the agreement after the first formal talks between the two leaders since both took office, as they seek to move beyond a bitter wartime history that has haunted relations.
“Regarding the issue of “comfort women”, I believe we should not leave behind difficulties for future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship,” Abe told reporters in Seoul after the talks, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the normalization of (Japan-South Korea) ties this year. Keeping that in mind, we’ve agreed to accelerate talks for the earliest possible resolution.”
The meeting was a diplomatic plus for Abe, who had sought two-way talks with Park amid a push by the United States for Japan and South Korea to improve relations in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
The Asian neighbors have struggled to find common ground over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, particularly the issue of “comfort women”, as the women, many Korean, are euphemistically known in Japan.
“I hope today’s summit will heal the bitter history in a broad sense and be a sincere one and an important opportunity to develop the two countries’ relationship,” Park told Abe at the start of the talks, the first formal two-way meeting between the two since Abe took office in late 2012 and Park in early 2013, according to a transcript released by her office.
Abe told Park he wanted to work with her “to build a new future of forward-looking Japan-Korea relations” and an exchange of honest opinions by the leaders was needed.
Park said in an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily last week that resolving the “comfort women” issue was central to better ties with Japan. South Korea says Japanese leaders have repeatedly failed to properly atone for wartime atrocities.
On Monday, Park told Abe the issue should be resolved soon, in a way acceptable to victims and other South Koreans, according to her foreign policy advisor, Kim Kyu-hyun.
Japan, which says the issue of compensation for “comfort women” was legally settled by their 1965 diplomatic treaty and that it stands by a 1993 government apology, worries that even if it takes fresh steps, South Korea will decline to bring the issue to a close.
Abe also raised the issue of rising tension in the South China Sea in the talks with Park, saying it was a cause for international concern and that Tokyo wanted to cooperate with Seoul and Washington to ensure freedom of the seas.
A U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in South China Sea last Tuesday in the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits claimed by Beijing.
The Park-Abe meeting followed a summit of South Korean, Japanese and Chinese leaders on Sunday where they agreed to restore what had been an annual forum to work toward greater economic integration and regional cooperation.
“Japan, China and South Korea are neighbors, and because we are neighbors, there are difficult issues among us,” Abe said at a news conference with Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
South Korean and Japanese business executives who met last week in Tokyo expressed hope that better ties with Seoul would improve bilateral trade.
Seoul’s ties with Beijing have tightened while the chilly relationship with Japan has been reflected in trade.
Trade with Japan accounted for 22 percent of South Korea’s total trade in 1991, but had fallen to 8 percent by 2014.
In contrast, South Korea’s trade with China rose to 21 percent of its total last year from just 4 percent in 1992, when they normalized ties.
Writing by Jack Kim in Seoul and Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Dean Yates