• Kyodo

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President Barack Obama pressed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month to improve ties with South Korea, sources familiar with U.S.-Japan relations said Friday, reflecting Washington’s dissatisfaction with the tepid progress in reconciliation.

Obama made the call during talks with Abe on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 economies in Brisbane, Australia, out of concern that lingering tension between the two U.S. security allies could be a drag on his policy of focusing on Asia, according to the sources.

Obama brokered a trilateral meeting with Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in March in The Hague hoping the event would encourage the Asian leaders to have a one-on-one talk, but there have been few signs they moved closer to a summit.

Bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea have been strained by differences over Japan’s actions during its brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula before and during the war, especially the use of the “ianfu,” (comfort women), Japan’s euphemism for the thousands of mostly Korean women who were rounded up to provide sex for Imperial Japanese troops at military brothels Japan called “comfort stations.” The survivors, whose numbers have been dwindling, are seeking official compensation and an official apology.

The history issue, as well as a territorial dispute over two tiny South Korea-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan, which the South calls the East Sea, has prevented Abe and Park from holding a summit since they took office in late 2012 and early 2013, respectively.

During the Nov. 16 talks with Abe in Brisbane, Obama showed somewhat positive reactions to Japanese efforts to mend fences with South Korea.

But Obama repeated calls on Abe to settle testy issues with South Korea that date back before the end of the war, mentioning Germany’s postwar efforts to reconcile with neighboring countries that suffered under the Nazis, the sources said.

South Korea has asked Japan for “sincere” measures to settle the “comfort women” issue before holding a summit. But Japan has said a summit should be held without preconditions.

Abe and Park have only chatted once — during a reception for the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that was held Nov. 10 in Beijing.

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