TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Monday 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," Abe said at the beginning of a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se.
Abe was expected to attend a ceremony at the South Korean embassy in Tokyo late Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties in 1965.
Park's office in Seoul said she would take part in an evening reception at the Japanese embassy, where she would read a message that was due to have been read by her foreign minister one hour earlier in Tokyo.
The moves appear to indicate a warming of relations after several years of frostiness, with the US allies sniping over differing views on history and on the ownership of a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Yun, who was on his first official visit to Tokyo, held talks Sunday with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, when the two men agreed there would be a summit "at an appropriate time".
In their talks, Yun and Kishida "also agreed to hold foreign ministerial talks on a regular basis, and to visit each other's country," Suga said.
The foreign ministry in Seoul said Yun had delivered a message from 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."
Park has previously maintained there can be no meeting with 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," Suga said, echoing local media reports that no tangible movement was made in a Sunday meeting between Kishida and Yun.
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 $800 million in grants or loans to its former colony.
The Japanese government also issued a formal apology in 1993, which remains official policy.