Japan official heads to Seoul for 'comfort women' talks

TOKYO - A senior Japanese official left for Seoul on Wednesday to discuss the extremely thorny issue of wartime sex slavery, in a move Tokyo hopes will lead to a diplomatic thaw.

Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asia and Oceania affairs bureau, is expected to tell his South Korean counterpart that Tokyo is mulling an offer of an official apology and money for the women, Kyodo News said, citing an unnamed government official.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea - particularly its use of so-called "comfort women" from Korea and other Asian nations as sex slaves in wartime brothels.

But as President Barack Obama heads to both Japan and South Korea next week there is renewed impetus for the two key US allies to heal their fractured relationship, despite domestic pressures on both sides not to bend.

The comfort women issue has deeply divided the neighbours - frustrating Washington at a time of growing regional instability, with China's military build-up snowballing and North Korea warning that it may carry out another nuclear test.

Japan has long maintained that all issues relating to the colonial period were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalised diplomatic ties with South Korea, and has rejected calls to compensate individuals, including former comfort women.

But Tokyo is now considering fresh measures including a direct apology by its ambassador to South Korea, Koro Bessho, a letter bearing the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and disbursement of Japanese government-funded financial aid, Kyodo said.

Japan would implement the measures after confirming with South Korea that the issue "has been completely settled," so that South Korea will never bring it up again, Kyodo said.

Japan's government made a landmark apology in 1993 to the comfort women, offering money to former sex slaves through the Asian Women's Fund, a private body set up at Tokyo's initiative in 1995 and run until 2007.

Some survivors refused the cash because it did not come directly from the government.

Repeated wavering since the apology among senior right-wing politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is in denial and is not sufficiently remorseful.