South Korea’s president and Japan’s premier exchanged advice on Monday on remaining “mature” and “cool-headed” but offered no concessions over a bitter territorial row that has soured relations.
In messages read out at an annual bilateral “friendship” meeting in Seoul, neither President Lee Myung-bak nor Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda directly addressed the dispute over an isolated island chain by name.
But the issue was clearly referenced in language couched in diplomatic niceties.
“From a broad perspective and based on the idea of taking a cool-headed approach, Japan and Korea must make efforts to build a stable relationship,” Noda said in his written remarks.
Japan was infuriated by Lee’s visit in August to the island chain, known as the Dokdo islands in Korean and the Takeshima islands in Japanese.
Tokyo said the visit – the first ever by a South Korean president – was deliberately provocative and Noda, at the time, labelled it “extremely deplorable”.
The islands, which lie between the two countries, are occupied by South Korea but claimed by both.
In his remarks, Lee stressed the need to build “a mature partnership ... with the courage and wisdom to look squarely at history and sincere action backing it up”.
Seoul insists Tokyo’s claim to the islands is erroneously founded in Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over South Korea.
Back in August, Lee said he had visited the islands to press Tokyo to settle lingering colonial grievances, including the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during the second world war.
He had also stated that Japanese Emperor Akihito would have to personally apologise for the excesses if he ever wanted to visit South Korea.
The visit and Lee’s comments sent bilateral relations – which have often been tense, despite close economic ties – into freefall, and triggered a fierce propaganda war over the territorial issue.
Former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, who attended Monday’s event in Seoul, was scheduled to meet Lee later in the day, with media reports that the island row would top of the agenda.
Japan is also embroiled in a high-stakes row with China over a different set of disputed islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan.