TOKYO - Japan and South Korea have taken a tentative first step towards mending frayed ties, as their leaders joined United States President Barack Obama in a trilateral meeting to discuss regional security.
It was the first time that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun Hye have sat at the same table since both took office - Mr Abe in December 2012 and Ms Park in February last year.
It was also the first time in nearly two years that the leaders of the estranged neighbours have held talks.
Tuesday's meeting, called by the US, took place at The Hague after the Nuclear Security Summit ended.
Washington had been eager to get its two North-east Asia allies to patch up their relationship ahead of Mr Obama's visit to the region next month.
As the three leaders sat down for the Obama-brokered talks, Pyongyang launched two ballistic missiles, underlining the need for the two key US allies to repair their strained ties so as to present a more coordinated response to the North Korean security threat.
Mr Obama said before the meeting that it was very important for the three nations to show "unity and shared determination".
"It's an important message to our citizens; it's an important message to the Asia-Pacific region."
US officials said the bulk of the meeting was on North Korea and the trio stressed the value placed on boosting trilateral cooperation, both in diplomacy and security.
There was no reference during the meeting to the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul. After the meeting, Mr Abe voiced expectations of a bilateral summit with the South Korean leader.
"I am made aware again of the importance of meeting directly and talking. I hope the meeting will be the first step towards future-oriented Japan-South Korea ties," he told reporters.
He had pulled out all the diplomatic stops to win over Ms Park, opening his pre-meeting remarks with a Korean greeting which means "nice to meet you".
While Tokyo hailed their meeting, Seoul's response was less enthusiastic. South Korean media said Mr Abe's attempt to speak Korean was met by a "stony-faced" Ms Park, Agence France-Presse reported.
Mr Yoshiki Mine, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said the trilateral meeting was significant for Japan-South Korea ties. "But a bilateral summit is unlikely to take place in the first half of this year."
Earlier, Mr Abe promised not to revise government statements concerning the "comfort women" issue and apologising for Japan's past war and colonial rule.
Ms Park welcomed his pledge, which paved the way for Tuesday's meeting, but she has not let down her guard. She told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine recently that Japan should demonstrate its sincerity by resolving issues such as that of the comfort women.
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