TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Nak-yon, at his official residence on Thursday, against a backdrop of frosty relations between the two neighbors.
It was their first meeting in about a year, following talks in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2018. Lee, who is said to be well-versed in Japanese affairs, attended Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremony in Tokyo on Tuesday. South Korean President Moon Jae-in chose not to attend.
During their Thursday meeting, Lee delivered a personal letter from Moon to Abe. Moon is believed to have conveyed his intention to repair bilateral ties strained by a series of historical disputes, including the issue of compensation to Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II.
Abe told Lee, "Japan and Korea are important neighbors to each other," adding, "We will continue to communicate through diplomatic authorities to solve problems."
"The situation is very severe, but the important Japan-Korea relations should not be left as they are," Abe said. With regard to the wartime labor issue, Abe asked that "South Korea adhere to its commitments and create an opportunity to return to a healthy relationship."
According to the South Korean government, Lee responded, saying, "South Korea has respected and complied with the 1965 claim agreement, and will continue to do so." He added that "both countries can gather wisdom and overcome the current difficulties."
In addition to the wartime labor issue, the two countries have feuded over Japan's tighter controls on exports to South Korea, and the future of a military intelligence-sharing agreement that is due to expire in November, among other issues.
The sharp deterioration of relations between the two countries was triggered by a South Korean Supreme Court ruling that said Korean laborers are entitled to seek compensation from Japanese companies for alleged forced labor during the war. The Japanese government's position is that the ruling violates the 1965 bilateral agreement, under which the issue of compensation was settled.
Japan has called on South Korea to work out a solution that will not damage Japanese companies, but no progress has been made in talks between the two sides.
South Korea decided to terminate the intelligence pact in retaliation for Japan's new export controls. Japan insists the intelligence pact should be maintained. For its part, South Korea wants the export strictures eased, while Japan has defended them on national security grounds.
Moon is thought to be seeking a thaw in ties with Japan to shore up his political position at home. Early Thursday, prosecutors arrested Chung Kyung-shim, the wife of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, on embezzlement and other charges in connection with alleged favors given in exchange for securing their daughter a place at a graduate school.
If Cho is found to have committed wrongdoing, Moon is likely to come under fire for appointing him justice minister.