The Japanese government assured South Korea on Wednesday that it will uphold an official apology over frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II for which mainly Asian women were procured.
Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, made the assurance in a meeting with Lee Sang Deok, head of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said.
Ihara was briefing the South Koreans on a Japanese government review of the apology issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993.
The meeting between Ihara and Lee, the third senior-level Foreign Ministry talks between the countries since April, was intended to resolve highly charged differences between the two countries over "comfort women," as the wartime prostitutes mainly from Korea and other Asian countries are euphemistically known in Japan.
Ihara told reporters after the meeting that the two sides agreed to keep the channels of communication open between the two countries.
A high-ranking South Korean government official told reporters that the South Korean side expressed regret over Japan's review of the Kono statement and urged Tokyo to lay out proposals on how to resolve the issue of wartime sex slavery, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The next round of senior-level talks will be held in August, the South Korean official added.
The Japanese government released a report in June by a panel of scholars that concluded the South Korean government was involved in drafting the so-called Kono statement, in which Japan acknowledged for the first time that the Japanese military was involved in setting up the frontline brothels and used coercion to procure women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
The South Korean government has sharply criticized the review, saying it undermined the sincerity of the apology as stated by Kono.
Japan has maintained that all individual compensation claims by former sex slaves were legally resolved by agreements the two countries signed when normalizing diplomatic relations in 1965.
South Korea, however, has repeatedly said Japan should settle the issue in a way that is agreeable to the surviving victims, including an apology and compensation.
At present, there are 54 known former South Korean sex slaves still alive.
Despite its official position, Japan has extended humanitarian measures to former comfort women such as providing money in the form of atonement through the Asian Women's Fund, a pool of private donations set up at Tokyo's initiative in 1995 and which ran through 2007.
Bilateral relations have been strained over differing perceptions of wartime history and a territorial dispute over islets in the Sea of Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye have not held bilateral talks since they came to power.