Japan's point man on Northeast Asia met with his South Korean counterpart on Tuesday in an apparent bid to improve ties frayed over territorial and history-related issues, Seoul officials said.
The meeting between Junichi Ihara, the director general of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and his South Korean opposite number, Lee Sang-dek, came amid heightened tensions sparked by Japan's recent string of nationalist remarks and actions.
It marks the first direct-general level gathering of the neighbors after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December seriously inflamed public opinion in South Korea.
The shrine, which honors Japanese World War II criminals along with other war dead, symbolizes Japan's imperialism of South Korea, a major victim of Japan's wartime aggression and brutalities.
The media poured out speculation that the two neighbors would embark on efforts to mend their strained ties in the Tuesday meeting.
The foreign ministry here, however, tried to play down the talks, with ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young saying in a briefing that "he is not aware of any connection between (the talks and tie-mending efforts)."
Cho said that the meeting took place only as part of a courtesy call by Ihara, who is visiting Seoul to attend a meeting of Japanese diplomatic establishments in South Korea.
Seoul has long demanded Tokyo stop its troublesome behavior and take sincere steps to mend ties with Seoul first.
The bilateral meeting also came a day after South Korea's Ambassador to Japan Lee Byung-kee held talks in Tokyo with Japan's Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki on ways to mend the bilateral ties.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the importance of better Seoul-Tokyo relations during his Seoul visit last week amid concerns that the strained ties may impair the trilateral military partnership among the three nations.
Kerry also said that he plans to resolve the bilateral tensions before U.S. President Barack Obama's planned visit to Seoul and Tokyo in April.
Japan's Kyodo News reported earlier Tuesday that the Japanese foreign minister has proposed a meeting with the South Korean counterpart. The foreign ministry in Seoul refused to respond to the offer, saying that the ministry has not officially taken it.
Ihara, who also represents Japan in the long-dormant six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, met with South Korea's envoy to the talks, Cho Tae-young, earlier in the day to discuss the security issue, according to the ministry. (Yonhap)