TOKYO • South Korean President Park Geun Hye said the emotional issue of "comfort women", who were forced into prostitution at Japanese wartime brothels, would be central at a bilateral summit and key to stable ties with Japan.
Ms Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are set to hold their first two-way talks since she took office in February 2013, an effort to mend ties chilled by what South Korea sees as repeated failures by leaders in Tokyo to properly atone for wartime atrocities.
In an interview published in the Asahi Shimbun daily yesterday, Ms Park said efforts by Japan to resolve long-festering issues such as the "comfort women" were needed for a "stable relationship".
"For that to happen, more than anything, some kind of progress on the important issue of victims of the Japanese military comfort women (system) is essential," Ms Park was quoted as telling the Asahi in written replies to questions.
"I hope that this summit will be a chance to set a goal for a solution of this issue and that there will be no further hurt for either side on this," she added.
Japan says the matter of compensation for the women was settled under the 1965 treaty setting diplomatic relations. In addition, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologised in a 1993 statement acknowledging the 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.
South Korea has said that was insufficient because it was not official.
Ms Park told the Asahi that steps must be taken soon, perhaps even within this year, given that most of the surviving women are around 90 years old.
"It's extremely important that the Japanese government expresses, as soon as possible, a solution that the victims can accept and our citizens can understand," she said.
"I hope that the Japanese government will take this opportunity to express a healing solution that meets these expectations."
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda told a news conference that Japan's stance on the matter remains unchanged.
"There are many difficult issues between our nations, but that should mean no conditions are put on a leaders' meeting beforehand - as we have said repeatedly," he added.
Mr Abe will visit Seoul to resume annual trilateral talks, also involving China, that had been shelved since 2012 as tensions rose over territory and conflicting views of Japan's past aggression.
The trilateral summit is set for tomorrow and on the following day, Ms Park will host Mr Abe for the bilateral talks.
Renewed dialogue could also enable the three governments to coordinate their response to persistent threats from a nuclear-armed North Korea.