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    Nov 03, 2015

    Japan, S. Korea to step up 'comfort women' talks


    JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye agreed yesterday to speed up talks to resolve the issue of wartime sex slaves - euphemistically called comfort women - as early as possible, signalling effort to advance bilateral relations.

    "Regarding the issue of comfort women, I believe we must not leave obstacles to future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship," Mr Abe told reporters in Seoul after his first talks with Ms Park, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

    Ms Park said in a statement after the meeting that the issue is the "biggest stumbling block" to bilateral ties, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

    The South Korean President had run into Mr Abe in several multilateral summits since her election in 2013, but had refused to meet him one-on-one, in protest against his nationalistic interpretation of historical issues such as wartime sex slaves.

    Historians estimate that more than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were sexually enslaved by Japanese troops during World War II, and only 47 are still alive in South Korea, said Yonhap.

    In a sign of unresolved animosities, Ms Park's office decided not to host a luncheon for Mr Abe after their meeting, the New York Times reported.

    But the two leaders agreed to continue top-level communication, a day after they and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met in the first trilateral summit of the three countries after a 31/2-year hiatus.

    Analysts are closely watching whether Japan's relations with the two neighbours would improve following the agreement to resume the annual three-way meeting.

    Mr Abe yesterday also urged cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States in maintaining an "open and peaceful" South China Sea, saying China's construction of islands in disputed waters is a source of concern to the international community.

    But there was no report on how Ms Park reacted to the appeal.

    On the economic front, the two leaders agreed to aim for the early conclusion of negotiations for comprehensive and high-level accords in preparation for a trilateral free trade agreement with China, and a 16-nation free trade grouping called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.