A demonstrator displays a placard as the group demands an apology from Japan over the comfort women issue during a rally in front the Japan Interchange Association in Taipei. Picture: Sam Yeh


Tokyo - South Korea and Japan held rare high-level talks on Wednesday on the extremely sensitive issue of wartime sex slavery, which has contributed to a virtual freeze in diplomatic ties.

Kyodo News cited an unnamed government official as saying the Japanese side would indicate Tokyo is mulling an official apology and money for the so-called “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels.

Seoul said the meeting between Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asia and Oceania affairs bureau, and Lee Sang-Deok, South Korea's director-general for Northeast Asian Affairs, marked the first time high-level officials had discussed the comfort woman issue in isolation.

Briefing domestic reporters after the talks, a South Korean official would only reveal that both sides had laid out their respective stances and agreed to meet again soon.

“They shared the opinion that this issue should be settled speedily in order to remove obstacles in South Korea-Japan relations,” Yonhap news agency quoted the official as saying.

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 the Korean peninsula.

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.

According to the government official cited by Kyodo, the offer of another apology and further compensation would be formalised only after confirming the issue “has been completely settled”, so that South Korea never brings it up again.

Japan previously offered 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.

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

Japanese politicians have expressed exasperation at Seoul's repeated requests for contrition.

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

Historians say up to 200 000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, were forced to work in Japanese army brothels.

There are 55 surviving former comfort women in South Korea.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have also been deeply strained by a territorial dispute over a set of tiny, South Korean-controlled islets.

Japan reiterated its claim to the islets - known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese - in a section of its newly released foreign policy report earlier this month. - Sapa-AFP