Japan, South Korea diplomats meet ahead of ministerial talks on 'comfort women'

SEOUL (Reuters) - Senior diplomats of South Korea and Japan met on Sunday ahead of talks by their foreign ministers over the issue of ‘comfort women’, a legacy of Japan’s wartime past that has long plagued ties between the two countries.

Flowers are placed on a memorial wall commemorating the late former South and North Korean "comfort women" at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum" in Seoul, South Korea, July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The row over the Korean women forced into prostitution for Japan’s military brothels during World War Two remains the last major obstacle to better ties between the East Asian neighbors.

The two countries have been pushing to improve relations since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met President Park Geun-hye last month. That meeting took place partly under pressure from Washington, which is keen to see its two allies get along.

Kimihiro Ishikane, director-general of the Japanese foreign ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, met with his South Korean counterpart Lee Sang-deok. The two officials have held more than 10 rounds of meetings since April last year to find a common ground on resolving the issue.

The meeting is seen as preparation for Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit and meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Monday.

Yun said on Sunday Kishida’s visit was very important in its timing coming after more than a year and a half of high-level talks aimed at resolving the comfort women issue.

Park and Abe pledged in November to seek “the earliest possible resolution” to the issue, noting that this was the 50th year of their diplomatic relations.

Japan has said there was no change to its stance that the matter of compensation was settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty.

However, the Nikkei business daily reported that Japan would propose creating a government-backed fund to help the former comfort women as part of a possible agreement.

Abe, like many conservative Japanese politicians, had in the past criticized a 1993 apology acknowledging the role of Japanese authorities in coercing the women. As prime minister, Abe has said he stands by the statement.

South Korea has demanded fresh steps by the Japanese government that it said should be acceptable by the surviving former comfort women and the public in general, without specifying what was needed.

Tokyo wants assurances any resolution to the feud that might be reached will be final, Japanese government sources have said.

Helping to set the stage for Kishida’s visit, a South Korean court last week cleared a Japanese journalist of defaming Park. On Wednesday, its Constitutional Court also refused to review a complaint over the 1965 treaty.

Editing by Jacqueline Wong