Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye praised exchange student Lee Su-hyon, who died 12 years ago Thursday attempting to save a Japanese man who had fallen off a Tokyo train platform onto the tracks.

It’s the first time the leaders of the two nations, at odds over a group of islets in the Sea of Japan, have offered such messages.

Abe expressed his sincere wish that Lee’s spirit of altruism and courage will continue to be passed down to future generations.

In her statement, Park said: “We should once again remember his heroic deeds and I wish from the bottom of my heart that Asian nations, including Japan and South Korea, will further mature their friendship in the future.”

The 26-year-old Lee was killed by a train in 2001 when he jumped off the platform at JR Shin-Okubo Station to assist a drunken Japanese man who had fallen onto the tracks. Another Japanese man who also came to the drunken man’s aid was killed too. The three were strangers.

After the tragedy, Lee’s parents received condolence money from all over the world. In 2002, they donated ¥10 million to an annual scholarship program for Asian students “keen to become a bridge between Japan and their home country,” like Lee.

So far 640 students have benefited from the program, including 50 this year. About 30 attended a ceremony Thursday.

“I find it very meaningful that this scholarship program has encouraged many exchange students who want to become an ‘international bridge’ to study hard and laid the important foundation of friendship between Japan and South Korea,” Abe said in a statement released at the ceremony.

Ties between the nations soured last year when then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to a cluster of disputed islets in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.

Prior to the ceremony, Lee’s parents, Lee Sung-dae and Shin Yoon-chan, paid a visit to Shin-Okubo Station to place flowers and take a look at barriers on the platform set up in September to prevent passengers from falling onto the tracks. The two said the barriers came 12 years too late but still hailed them as a great step forward in securing passenger safety.

“If the barriers had already been in place when that accident happened, my son would still be alive. That thought wrenches my heart,” said the father.

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