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Park, Abe pledge closer cooperation on North Korea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Wednesday to work closely together on dealing with North Korea and to improve relations between their two countries, a presidential spokesperson said.

The two leaders reached the agreement when Abe made a phone call to Park to congratulate her for being elected as South Korea's president, presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing said. 

Park expressed hope for "political leaders (in Japan) to make decisions" on issues related to island nation's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula so the two countries can "build a future-oriented relationship," the spokeswoman said.

"The two leaders also agreed to continue close cooperation on North Korea policies," she said. 

The conversation, which was their first since Park took office last week, came after a round of diplomatic spats in recent weeks over Japan's territorial claims to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo.

Despite the souring in relations, Seoul and Tokyo need to work closely on dealing with North Korea, which conducted its third nuclear test last month and has since been ratcheting up its bellicose rhetoric against the outside world.

In Wednesday's conversation, no specific issues of contention came up, the spokeswoman said.

Abe described South Korea as Japan's "most important neighbor" that shares the universal values of freedom and democracy, and expressed his hope to meet with Park during an annual trilateral summit with China scheduled for May in Seoul, the spokeswoman said.

South Korea and Japan are key trade partners and closely work together on international efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. However, issues related to Japan's colonial rule of South Korea have long been a drag on their relationship. 

In an address marking Korea's 1919 nationwide uprising against Japan's 1910 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, Park urged Tokyo last week to face up to its militaristic past and take a more responsible attitude for its wartime wrongdoings.

Still, the speech appeared to be carefully worded, with Park making no mention of specific contentious issues, in a sign that she would first wait and see whether Tokyo changes its attitude on Dokdo and other repeatedly recurring rows related to the colonial rule.

The colonial governance, which ended in 1945, left deep scars on the hearts of Koreans as they were banned from using their own language at schools and forced to adopt Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were also mobilized as forced laborers and sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women." (Yonhap News)