Kerry calls for better Korea-Japan ties

KOREA - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday urged South Korea and Japan to work to overcome historical animosities and improve their relations to better counter North Korean threats and other challenges together.

After their talks in Seoul, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Kerry also renewed calls for Pyongyang to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearisation through actions.

Though Kerry displayed respect for "deeply felt historical differences", he said that positive relations between Seoul and Tokyo are "in the best interests" of Washington, the two old foes and the region, given their shared values and robust economic and strategic partnerships.

"While the US obviously has a strong interest in the security relationship, it's up to Japan and the Republic of Korea to put history behind them and move the relationship forward," he said at a joint news conference.

"It's critical at the same time that we maintain robust trilateral cooperation particularly in the face of North Korea's nuclear programme."

Already strained by territorial and historical feuds, Japan's relations with its neighbours plunged to a new low after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in late December.

Seoul and Beijing condemned the visit as an attempt to whitewash the country's imperial past, while Washington expressed "disappointment", warning of further tensions in the region. During Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida's trip to the US capital last week, Kerry reportedly pressed him to work to defuse regional tension.

Yun, for his part, urged Japanese leaders to face up to history and take steps to win trust from neighbours.

"A stable Korea-Japan relationship is one of the key tasks of the (Park Geun-hye) government," he said.

"But what the international community has witnessed over the past several months is historically negative, revisionist remarks and behaviour."

Despite North Korea's repeated overtures, the two allies reaffirmed that they will not engage in dialogue "for the sake of talks".

"We've been through that exercise previously; we want to know that it's real," Kerry said.

The allies are "yet to see evidence" that Pyongyang is prepared to live up to its obligations on "verifiable denuclearisation."

Kerry arrived here for a second time as part of his fifth tour to Asia as the top US diplomat, which will also take him to Beijing and Jakarta before moving onto Abu Dhabi. During his two-day stay, he also met with President Park Geun-hye and other key officials.

The meeting came one day after the two Koreas held their first high-level dialogue in seven years to chiefly discuss planned reunions of families separated by the Korean War. It also coincided with the White House's announcement of US President Barack Obama's plan to visit Seoul in April.

During Yun's trip to Washington last month, the two top diplomats agreed to intensify consultations on the political situation in the communist country in the wake of the execution of leader Kim Jong-un's powerful uncle in December.