Japan's PM Abe pledges to improve ties with South Korea as nations celebrate 50 years of ties

South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se (centre) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of their talks at Mr Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 22, 2015.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se (centre) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of their talks at Mr Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 22, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday pledged to improve ties with South Korea after years of strain over history and territory, as the two countries held low-key celebrations of 50 years of diplomatic ties.

"I hope to meet President Park Geun Hye for the people of both countries...and to improve and further develop our relations," Mr Abe said at the beginning of his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se.

Mr Abe is expected to attend a ceremony at the South Korean embassy in Tokyo later on Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties in 1965, in a sign that tensions are beginning to ease, top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. Ms Park will attend a similar ceremony in Seoul, he added.

Mr Yun, who was on his first official visit to Tokyo, held talks on Sunday with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, when the two men agreed there would be a summit "at an appropriate time".

In their talks, Mr Yun and Mr Kishida "also agreed to hold foreign ministerial talks on a regular basis, and to visit each other's country", Mr Suga said.

The Foreign Ministry in Seoul said Mr Yun had delivered a message from Ms Park in which she expressed hope that “issues faced (by the two countries) will be solved smoothly so that this year will be a milestone year that opens the path for a new future”.

Ms Park has previously maintained there can be no meeting with Mr Abe until Japan makes amends for its wartime system of sex slavery, which saw as many as 200,000 mostly South Korean "comfort women" forced into servitude for Japan's Imperial military.

Japan "has explained our position on the issue", Mr Suga said, echoing local media reports that no tangible movement was made in a Sunday meeting between Mr Kishida and Mr Yun.

Ms Park said in a recent interview with the Washington Post that "there has been considerable progress on the issue of the comfort women" and the two countries were "in the final stage" of negotiations.

Japan maintains that the issue was settled in the 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million (S$1 billion) in grants or loans to its former colony.

The Japanese government also issued a formal apology in 1993, which remains official policy.

Japan and South Korea are also at odds over ownership of the sparsely-populated Dokdo islets, which sit in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and are controlled by Seoul. Tokyo claims them under the name Takeshima.