In their rare prime ministerial talks Thursday, South Korea and Japan agreed to commence diplomatic efforts in earnest for an early resolution to their frayed ties highlighted by a monthslong trade spat.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon also handed over President Moon Jae-in's personal letter to Japan's leader, Shinzo Abe, in which he expressed hope to address pending issues with no further delay.
"The two prime ministers shared the view that South Korea and Japan, as important neighboring countries, can't leave the difficult situation of bilateral relations as it is," South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young told reporters, after their 21-minute meeting in Tokyo. He's accompanying Lee on his trip for the formal enthronement ceremony of Japanese Emperor Naruhito.
Often prickly Seoul-Tokyo relations have been at one of the lowest ebbs in recent months since Japan's toughening of export restrictions against South Korea in apparent retaliation over Seoul's attitude on the issue of compensating Korean victims of Japan's wartime forced labor.
The Moon administration hit back with its own trade control measure and a decision to terminate a bilateral accord on sharing military information.
Lee told Abe that his government will continue to comply with a 1965 bilateral treaty on state-level reparations on Japan's 1910-45 colonization of Korea and normalizing diplomatic ties between Seoul and Tokyo, according to Cho.
Lee also stressed the importance of civilian exchanges including those by youth between the neighbors.
In response, Abe was quoted as reiterating Tokyo's position that a state-to-state promise should be kept. Japan claims all compensation-related issues were resolved in the 1965 deal, while South Korea's Supreme Court ruled victims still have their individual rights to compensation.
The Lee-Abe talks are expected to serve as a "turning point" in efforts to mend fences, as the two sides agreed to hold "brisk, official" follow-up diplomatic consultations, according to a senior South Korean government official. The two sides agreed to characterize the session as "talks," not just a meeting, he added.
He said the South Korean prime minister seems to have attained his "goal" of creating the mood for fostering dialogue between the two sides.
On the possibility of Moon and Abe having a summit, the official said no specific proposal was put forward during Thursday's talks.
"But it does not mean (the two nations) are negative toward holding the summit or ruling out such a possibility. The government is always open to holding (a Moon-Abe) summit," he said.
Speculation is widespread that Moon and Abe may have a separate meeting should they attend international summits scheduled in November.
In the letter, meanwhile, Moon pointed out that South Korea and Japan are key partners for peace and security of Northeast Asia.
Lee and Abe also agreed on the importance of promoting one-on-one cooperation and trilateral partnerships involving the United States to deal with North Korea's nuclear issue.
Lee is scheduled to return home later in the day after wrapping up a three-day trip. (Yonhap)