South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japan on Saturday to muster up the courage to face up to history in order to mend frayed relations between the two countries, saying Tokyo will find itself more isolated if it keeps denying the past.
"True courage is not to deny the past, but to look squarely at history as it is and teach growing generations the correct history," Park said in an address marking Korea's 1919 nationwide uprising against Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.
"I believe the Japanese government should make the right and courageous decision so that the two countries will be able to overcome the painful history and move toward a future of new prosperity," she said.
In particular, Park urged Tokyo to resolve long-running grievances over its sexual enslavement of Korean women for its troops during World War II, saying the issue is becoming increasingly urgent as there are now only 55 elderly victims left.
"I hope the Japanese government will break away from denial of the past and write a new history of truth and reconciliation in accordance with the universal conscience of mankind and the precedent of post-war Germany so that the two countries can move jointly toward a future of cooperation, peace and joint prosperity," she said.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have been at one of their worst points in recent years due to Tokyo's refusal to address the sexual slavery issue and its repeated claims to the South's easternmost islets of Dokdo.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also taken a series of steps that raised questions about whether Japan is remorseful about its imperialist past, such as Abe's much-denounced visit in December to a war shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals.
Last week, Japan again raised Seoul's ire when its main government spokesman said Tokyo may re-examine a 1993 statement of apology, known as the "Kono statement," in which the country acknowledged the use of coercion in the recruitment of women to work at brothels for its troops during WWII.
Park has shunned a summit with Abe ever since she took office in February last year, saying she sees no point in meeting with him unless Japan first demonstrates seriousness about improving relations with Seoul through measures to resolve grievances over colonial-era atrocities, including the sexual slavery issue.
Park also used Saturday's speech to propose to North Korea that the two sides hold reunions of families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War on a regular basis, saying time is running short for elderly family members waiting to see their long-lost relatives.
Last month, the two Koreas held a round of family reunions for the first time in more than three years in a sign of warming inter-Korean relations following a year of high tension over Pyongyang's nuclear test and threats of war.
She also urged Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program and work together with the South for unification.