TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered his foreign minister to visit South Korea in a drive to resolve a bitter row over women systematically forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Mr Abe told Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to visit Seoul by the end of this year as he aims for a resolution of the "comfort women" issue, national broadcaster NHK said, using a euphemism for those coerced into sexual servitude.
Seoul is demanding a formal apology and compensation for the Korean women forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese military army brothels during World War II.
Japan has long maintained that the dispute was settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million in grants or loans to its former colony.
The planned dispatch of Mr Kishida reflects Mr Abe's objective to "arrange a final settlement", NHK said, adding that attention will be focused on whether the foreign minister can clinch such a deal.
Jiji Press said that arrangements for a day trip were ongoing for a possible meeting around Monday (Dec 28).
The Foreign Ministry declined to immediately confirm the reports.
Tokyo is sounding out expanded humanitarian measures for the victims, such as financial assistance, in search for a breakthrough to resolve the issue, Jiji Press said.
As it attempts to reach a deal, Tokyo "wishes to affirm jointly with South Korea that the agreement would be the final settlement so that the issue would not be brought up again", Jiji said, echoing reports in other major Japanese media.
The fate of the wartime comfort women is a hugely emotional issue in South Korea and a source of much of the distrust that has marred relations between Seoul and Tokyo for decades.
However, Mr Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye have recently demonstrated their willingness to resolve the row after their first bilateral summit meeting last month and diplomats from the two countries have since met to seek a solution.
Before last month's meeting in Seoul, Ms Park had rebuffed all previous bilateral summit proposals, arguing that Tokyo had yet to properly atone for its wartime past and 1910-45 colonial rule.
The acquittal last week in South Korea of a Japanese journalist who had been prosecuted for allegedly defaming Ms Park in a column is seen as having cleared another obstacle that had stood in the way of improved relations.