S Korea, Japan defence ministers meet as ties thaw

SEOUL - The defence ministers of South Korea and Japan held talks in Seoul on Tuesday, in a further sign that relations are beginning to emerge from an extended diplomatic deep freeze.

The meeting between South Korea's Han Min-Koo and his Japanese counterpart Gen Nakatani took place ahead of a trilateral leadership dialogue involving the two countries and China.

It was the first time a Japanese defence minister has travelled to Seoul in nearly five years.

The two men last met in Singapore in May for what was the first bilateral defence ministry dialogue in four years.

Relations have been soured by the legacy of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, especially the issue of Korean "comfort women" forcibly recruited to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Since taking office in February 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has refused to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arguing that Tokyo has yet to properly atone for abuses during the colonial period.

Washington has been nudging its two key Asian military allies to overcome grievances over the past and focus together on containing an increasingly assertive China.

The defence meeting marked the latest in a series of steps the two sides have taken towards a tentative public rapprochement, although military cooperation was never suspended even when ties were at their lowest ebb.

Nakatani was expected to brief Han on the recent passage of new laws broadening the role of the Japanese military - legislation that has caused some consternation in Seoul.

The contentious security bills could allow Japanese troops to engage in combat overseas for the first time since the end of World War II.

Park and Abe are scheduled to meet in the coming weeks in Seoul for a trilateral leadership dialogue also involving Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Such three-way meetings, initiated in 2008, were held annually until 2012 when they were suspended after Seoul-Tokyo relations went into one of their regular tailspins.

During her recent visit to the United States, Park had suggested she would be open to sitting down one-on-one with Abe on the side of the trilateral summit.