Updated: 03/21/2014 22:43 | By Agence France-Presse

In breakthrough, S. Korea, Japan to hold summit with US

South Korea and Japan said Friday that their leaders will hold a summit with US President Barack Obama next week, in a breakthrough after Washington urged the pair to mend badly strained ties.

In breakthrough, S. Korea, Japan to hold summit with US

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on March 20, 2014 - by Kazuhiro Nogi

The meeting on the sidelines of an international nuclear conference taking place in The Hague Monday and Tuesday will mark the first formal talks between President Park Geun-Hye and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since they took office more than a year ago. 

"The government has decided to take part in a three-way summit with the United States and Japan to be hosted by the United States on the occasion of The Hague nuclear security summit," Seoul's foreign ministry said in a statement.

"At the three-way summit, North Korea's nuclear programmes and the issue of nuclear non-proliferation will be discussed."

The Japanese foreign ministry confirmed the plans, while Seoul said the pair were also consulting over possible talks between senior officials on Japan's use of Korean women in military brothels during World War II.

Although not a one-on-one encounter, the talks are a significant step forward as Park had repeatedly ruled out a summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for "past wrongdoings".

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest ebb for years, mired in emotive issues linked to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule and an island territorial dispute as well as its wartime use of so-called "comfort women".

Recent surveys have shown that the Japanese leader is even more unpopular with South Koreans than North Korean supremo Kim Jong-Un.

- 'Smoothing ruffled feathers' -

But prospects for a meeting between Park and Abe rose earlier this month after the Japanese leader promised to honour Tokyo's two previous apologies over its colonial past, issued in 1993 and 1995.

Park has welcomed Abe's pledge, saying she hopes it will pave the way for better bilateral ties.

South Korea has accused Japan of showing insufficient remorse for wartime abuses, particularly the use of sex slaves.

Japanese politicians express exasperation at the repeated requests for contrition, pointing to numerous apologies as well as a 1965 agreement that normalised relations and included a large payment to Seoul.

The situation was exacerbated by Abe's visit to a controversial war shrine in December that drew strong protests from South Korea and China, which also suffered during Japan's past colonial aggression.

The rift has been viewed with growing alarm in Washington. South Korea and Japan are the two major US military allies in Asia, and key to the US strategic "pivot" to the region.

Obama is stopping in both South Korea and Japan when he tours East Asia next month, hoping to bolster the key alliances.

Professor Cho Sei-Young of Dongseo University said the summit would "add a momentum for the two countries to seek ways to smooth their ruffled feathers".

"However, it is too premature to say whether it would lead to a bilateral summit between Park and Abe down the road," he told AFP.

Professor Jo Yang-Hyeon at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy said Seoul still remained firm in its long-standing position that Japan needs to do more to repent for wartime atrocities, and must stop trying to justify its militaristic past.

"The tripartite meeting does not mean Seoul eased its stance. This will not automatically lead to a bilateral summit with Japan," Jo said.

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