• Reuters, Kyodo

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye says the door is open for talks with the North on beginning the process of reunification during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, and has urged Japan to take “courageous” action on the issue of wartime sex slaves.

However, Park said in an interview with Reuters, Pyongyang must show sincerity in seeking a constructive dialogue and “walk the talk” in taking up South Korea’s offers for engagement.

Park also called for a “courageous decision” by Tokyo to improve ties between the two nations. Relations have chilled deeply over the past two years largely over the issue of Korean “comfort women,” as those forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II are known.

South Korea maintains that Japan has not sufficiently atoned for the women’s suffering and has protested against Tokyo’s review of a landmark 1993 apology that acknowledged the involvement of Japanese authorities in coercing the women.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that it adheres to the 1993 apology but that there was no direct documentary evidence that military or government officials were directly involved in kidnapping the women.

“What we wish to see is an apology to these victims as well as a courageous decision on the part of the Japanese political leadership to take measures to wholly restore honor to these comfort women victims. And doing so, I would say, offers a short route to easing the strains in our relationship,” Park said.

In response to the interview, Japan said Wednesday that its stance is not subject to change.

“We have repeatedly said that Japan and South Korea already resolved the issue of the right (for South Koreans) to seek compensation,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a news conference.

Japan has taken the position that issues of property and claims regarding its colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula were legally settled with South Korea by a bilateral agreement forged when the two normalized ties in 1965.

North Korea will send its foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, to the U.N. General Assembly meeting, the highest-ranking official from the reclusive state to attend in 15 years. Ri’s official agenda is not clear.

Pyongyang has not accepted South Korea’s overtures, and the unpredictable North’s official media have heaped insults on Park. Park said there are no current plans to meet North Korean officials in New York.

“If the opportunity does arise and they actually have the opportunity to respond and take up our offer — our earlier offer to engage in high-level contacts and for dialogue — I think such opportunities would be a good thing,” she said at the presidential Blue House. “If our foreign ministers were also able to engage in dialogue on that particular point, that would also be a good thing.”

After 19 months in office, Park has yet to make substantive progress in dealing with Pyongyang, led by the untested 31-year-old Kim Jong Un.

North Korea is keeping up its threat to conduct a fresh test of a nuclear device, which would be its fourth.

Park, who will travel on Saturday to Ottawa and then to New York, where she will address the General Assembly, has unveiled an ambitious initiative to engage North Korea to eventually bring the rivals close enough to make unification feasible for most on both sides.

Uniquely for an incoming South Korean president, Park had held a meeting with a North Korean leader before taking office.

Park visited Pyongyang in 2002 and sat down with then-leader Kim Jong Il to discuss a range of issues affecting the divided Koreas. The North’s leader is said to have apologized for a 1968 commando assault on the Blue House while her father was in office.

Kim’s son, Jong Un, took over when the elder leader died in December 2011 and has spent the time since then to consolidate his grip on power.

Park was asked if she thinks the younger Kim is someone she could speak with. “I’m ready to talk with anyone if doing so serves the cause of overcoming the pain of division on the Korean Peninsula and serves the cause of preparing for peaceful unification here. But what’s important, I must stress, is not talking for the sake of talking, but rather sincerity and the willingness to walk the talk,” she said.

Park highlighted efforts made by her government to reach out to the North, including an offer for high-level officials to meet and improve ties that went into a deep freeze in 2010 with the sinking of a South Korean naval ship, for which Seoul blamed Pyongyang.

Park’s plan is first to address humanitarian issues, including separated families. It would also start helping the North build the economic infrastructure needed for unification. Third, it would work to narrow the vast gap that has developed between the two peoples over 66 years of division.

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