• Kyodo

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The U.S. government welcomed signs of improvement in strained relations between Japan and South Korea as they marked the 50 anniversary of their normalization of diplomatic ties.

Washington has urged its two close security allies in East Asia, embroiled in disputes over history-related and territorial issues, to mend fences to make the region more stable.

“I think it’s an important step” that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye agreed Monday to attend commemoration events, State Department spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing, referring to the two leaders’ respective participation in anniversary ceremonies in Tokyo and Seoul.

During the events Abe and Park made remarks in which they expressed willingness to seek closer ties, although they have yet to meet one on one since they took office — Abe in 2012 and Park in 2013.

If the participation in the events leads to better relations, better cooperation and better dialogue between the two leaders, “that’s always welcome, too,” Kirby said.

Japan and South Korea have been trying to settle disputes over wartime history, especially the issue of “comfort women” were forced to work at Japanese military brothels.

Many of the women were from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

The territorial dispute is over the South Korean-controlled Takeshima/Dokdo islets in the Sea of Japan.

Abe and Park met last year in a trilateral meeting in The Hague brokered by President Barack Obama, who hoped the event would encourage the Japanese and South Korean leaders to meet bilaterally.