SEOUL - South Korea and Japan resumed suspended high-level talks in Seoul on Wednesday about the sensitive issue of wartime sex slaves, despite a virtual freeze in diplomatic ties.
Lee Sang-Deok, a director-general in the South Korean foreign ministry, met his Japanese counterpart Junichi Ihara for the third time since the two countries started holding monthly talks on the issue in April.
They should have met in June but Seoul suspended the process in protest at Tokyo's decision to review its landmark 1993 apology for the forcible recruitment of so-called "comfort women" to service military brothels during World War II.
The review upheld the apology, but angered Seoul by asserting there was no evidence to corroborate the testimony of Korean comfort women.
South Korea also rejected the review's finding that its government had been involved in drafting the apology.
Around 200,000 women, mainly from Korea but also from China and other Asian countries, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.
While mainstream Japanese opinion holds that the wartime government was culpable, some right-wing politicians including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continue to cast doubt, claiming the brothels were staffed by professional prostitutes.
The equivocation is a huge irritation in Tokyo's relations with East Asia and with South Korea in particular.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan's harsh 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
The rift is a source of growing anxiety for Washington, whose strategic "pivot" to Asia is on a more fragile footing with its two main military allies in the region barely on speaking terms.
Tokyo's top official travelled to Seoul on Wednesday on a three-day mission supported by Abe to help repair bruised relations.
Governor Yoichi Masuzoe, who in April made a three-day trip to Beijing to thaw frosty ties, was due to meet Seoul mayor Park Won-Soon and other senior government officials.
Since sweeping to power in December 2012, Abe has repeatedly called for talks with his counterparts in South Korea and China but has so far been rebuffed.
"I took a message from Prime Minister Abe...who said 'I genuinely hope to improve Japan-South Korea relations'," Masuzoe said in an interview before leaving Tokyo.
He later told reporters that he hoped the trip would start a "virtuous cycle of getting to understand each other".