by Kim Junghyun
SEOUL, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) -- With the year 2010 marking the 100th anniversary of Japan's forced annexation of the Korean peninsula, Seoul and Tokyo are once again calling for a fresh start in their traditionally conflict-ridden bilateral ties, despite lingering history issues that had thwarted many previous attempts.
At a joint press conference on Feb. 10 (Wednesday), South Korea 's top diplomat Yu Myung-hwan and his Japanese counterpart Katsuya Okada pledged to build forward-looking Seoul-Tokyo relations and not to turn a blind eye to unresolved historical issues, a line that some say was heard all too often.
Diplomatic ties between the two Asian powers have often been plagued by historical issues, mainly stemming from Japan's forced annexation in 1910 of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent 35- year colonial rule.
One of the thorniest issues is visits by top-ranking Japanese officials to Yasukuni Shrine, which venerates war heroes and war criminals alike, as many South Koreans see the act as a slap in their face and a possible sign of resurgent Japanese militarism.
Also, many here are infuriated by Japan's refusal to formally apologize for forcing South Korean women to serve as sex slaves -- often euphemistically called "comfort women" -- for Japanese soldiers, with Tokyo's then-military government backing rape camp operations for 13 years.
Territorial dispute is another sticky issue that never goes away, with both Seoul and Tokyo claiming sovereignty over lonely islets lying halfway between the two countries, called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
In his meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Okada said Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is hoping to "forge forward-looking bilateral ties."
At Wednesday's press conference, Okada also made the first official comment on historical issues since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power last September.
"Regarding what happened 100 years ago, (Japan) deprived South Koreans of their nation and left a great wound on their national pride. I can understand the feeling of the people whose country was taken away and whose national pride damaged. We should remember the pains of victims of the colonization and never forget the feelings of them," the Japanese foreign minister said.
In a remark that particularly got much spotlight here, Okada said the Japanese government is following former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's 1995 statement which offered a "heartfelt apology" for its past aggression.
Local media say Okada's remarks are in line with the policy of the Hatoyama administration, which ended half a century of almost uninterrupted rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party with the message of change, which includes better ties with Japan' s Asian neighbors.
Hatoyama's victory was seen here as signaling better chances of resolving pending historical issues, but hopes were somewhat dented by Japan's recently released education guidebook which inexplicitly maintained sovereignty claim over the disputed islets.
Meanwhile, a possible visit to Seoul by Japanese Emperor Akihito is drawing huge attention at home, as observers here believe his highly symbolic visit would mark a watershed in the bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
President Lee last year invited the emperor to pay a visit to the country in 2010, a surprising move that was largely interpreted here as an apparent gesture of reconciliation but upset some local activists.
While the Japanese monarch has not officially responded to the invitation, Okada said that he would carefully consider the matter.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan said the emperor, if he is to visit South Korea, should be determined to show remorse over the history.
According to local media, some argue Akihito's visit should come with a new offer of apology by Japan, either in the form of a parliamentary resolution or prime minister's new statement, which exceeds the level of the Murayama's 1995 statement.
"We are expecting that Mr. Okada's awareness could lead to concrete action, such as progress in resolving historical issues," Seoul's foreign ministry said of Okada's remarks earlier in the day.