• Reuters

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked South Korean President Park Geun-hye for a summit meeting in a letter handed over on Friday, seeking a breakthrough in bilateral ties frozen by disagreements over Japan’s wartime past, including the “comfort women” issue.

Abe, in a letter handed to Park by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori during a visit to Seoul, mentioned the 50th anniversary of the neighbors’ diplomatic ties next year and said he hoped for efforts by both sides to improve relations.

“Prime Minister Abe said in the letter . . . that he eagerly hoped to be able to meet on the occasion of an international conference to be held this fall,” Park’s office said in a statement.

The two leaders are expected to attend the summit meeting of Asian and European leaders in Italy in October and of leaders of the APEC grouping in November in Beijing.

Relations have chilled over the past two years, chiefly over the issue of the comfort women, mostly Korean, who were forced to work in Imperial Japanese military brothels before and during the war.

Park did not immediately respond to Abe’s invitation but said it was important for genuine efforts to be made to restore the honor of the victims of the wartime sexual slavery, who are aging and “in the final 55 minutes” of their lives.

On Tuesday, Park called for a “courageous decision” by Tokyo to improve ties, in an exclusive interview.

The government welcomed the meeting between Mori and Park.

“We hope that this visit will lead to an improvement in bilateral relations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday.

Mori has political connections in South Korea after serving as the head of a group of Japanese members of parliament promoting friendship between the two countries, and he was warmly received by Park.

Abe has called for a summit with Park since becoming Japan’s prime minister but, apart from a three-way meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in March, relations have remained chilly.

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

Abe also enraged Seoul with his visit and repeated offerings to war-related Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal.

Abe’s government said it adheres to the 1993 apology and the studies that were used to draft it. He also says it is natural to pray at the controversial Shinto facility for those who sacrificed their lives for the nation.

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