Tokyo, Seoul in another bid to ease tensions

TOKYO - Senior officials from Japan and South Korea will meet in Tokyo today in a bid to smooth over a badly ruffled relationship.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday said the officials would address "issues of mutual interest".

They will likely include lawsuits in South Korea demanding compensation from Japanese companies for wartime conscripted labour, and Seoul's restrictions on importing Japanese marine products after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said the talks would focus on the sexual slavery practised by Imperial Japan in World War II, the country's Yonhap news agency reported.

The talks will be led by Mr Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau in Japan's Foreign Ministry, and Mr Lee Sang Deok, South Korea's director-general for North-east Asian Affairs.

"By ensuring communication at the bureau chief level, we want to build up relations of mutual confidence and bring it to dialogue at a high political level," Mr Kishida said.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been rebuffed in his attempts to arrange a two-way summit with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who insists Tokyo must atone for its wartime wrongs, particularly its use of "comfort women".

Seoul is also angered by Mr Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol in Asia for Japan's past militarism.

US President Barack Obama pressured Mr Abe and Ms Park - key American allies - to hold their first direct meeting in March on the sidelines of an international gathering in the Netherlands.

Their narrow agenda - on North Korea - did not disguise the evident tension between Mr Abe and Ms Park during photo shoots of the three.

Seoul-Tokyo ties are at their lowest level in years, strained by Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea and a territorial dispute over Takeshima/ Dokdo islets in waters between the two countries.

Wartime forced labour and the inflammatory subject of "comfort women" or sex slaves are both sources of Korean resentment.

Today's talks between senior officials are the second of their kind, and follow a meeting in Seoul in April to discuss the comfort women issue.

Briefing domestic reporters after the earlier talks, a Seoul official would only say that both sides had laid out their respective stances.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE