SEOUL South Korea's president-elect said on Friday that Japan needed to come to terms with its colonial history as tension between two Asian allies of the United States simmered over Japan's rule of Korea and an island dispute.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a December 31 interview he wanted to issue a statement that would supersede a landmark 1995 apology for Japan's military aggression, a move bound to raise hackles in South Korea, ruled by Japan from 1910-1945, and in China, where bitter wartime memories run deep.
Japan's top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, confirmed on Friday that Abe wanted to issue his own "forward-looking" statement but also told reporters the 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama would stand.
"The two sides must have a correct view of history and pursue a future of reconciliation and cooperation," South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye told Abe's aide, Fukushiro Nukaga, in Seoul, according to her spokeswoman, Cho Yoon-sun.
A "correct view of history" is shorthand for South Korea's desire for Japan to acknowledge its wartime and colonial excesses, something Tokyo says it has already done.
"The older generation must make the commitment to try to heal the wound, and must not become an obstacle to opening the way for the future generation."
China's Foreign Ministry said the Murayama statement was a "solemn declaration of attitudes and promises" made to countries in Asia victimized by Japanese invasion and colonisation.
"We hope Japan can adopt a spirit of reflecting on history and facing the future, and properly handle relevant issues," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.
A handful of protesters assembled at Gimpo Airport outside Seoul ahead of Nukaga's arrival and one stabbed himself in the stomach with a small knife and was taken to hospital.
Tensions over territorial claims and reparations and an apology for Korean sex slaves, known as comfort women, who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels, have spilled into the diplomatic arena as well as economics.
South Korea cancelled plans for an intelligence deal last year while a $57 billion (35 billion pounds) currency swap to shore up Asia's second- and fourth-largest economies was allowed to lapse after South Korea's current president visited the disputed island.
On Thursday, a Seoul court ruled that a Chinese citizen who carried out an arson attack on the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead in Tokyo could not be extradited to Japan as he had committed a "political crime" and might not get a fair trial.
Abe told reporters in western Japan that the ruling was "extremely regrettable". Nukaga echoed that stance but said he had conveyed a message from Abe seeking to improve ties and invited Park to visit Japan soon, Kyodo news agency reported.
Park is the daughter of military strongman Park Chung-hee who established diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1965 after more than a decade of tortured talks brokered by Washington, winning aid that helped his industrial drive that propelled South Korea from poverty to rich nation status.
Japan says it has settled all its obligations and has apologised for its colonial rule, although Abe's government has raised doubts about whether it stands by a 1993 statement on comfort women as well as the 1995 apology by Murayama.
Seoul says there has not been sufficient apology for the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans used as sexual slaves by the Japanese army and that reparations are not complete.
Abe hails from a wealthy political family that includes a grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was a wartime cabinet minister who was imprisoned but never tried as a war criminal after the war. He went on to become prime minister from 1957 to 1960.
Abe has promised not to yield in a territorial row with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea - known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China - and boost defence spending to counter China's growing influence.
Both Park and Abe are keen to bolster ties with the United States, a bulwark against China and the key military backer of the South against North Korea.
North Korea raised tensions in the region by launching a long-range rocket in December that it said was aimed at putting a scientific satellite in orbit, drawing international condemnation. It is banned from testing missile or nuclear technology under U.N. sanctions imposed after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear weapons tests.
(Additional reporting by Yuko Yoshikawa and Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Linda Sieg and Nick Macfie)
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