Japan plans to make clear it will maintain an apology to its neighbors over past aggressions, as part of efforts to improve its ties with South Korea, if Seoul finalizes a solution to a wartime labor issue, a government source said Saturday.

Tokyo is considering showing its remorse based on past statements, such as by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, as the two countries apparently enter the final stage of talks on the issue following a recent proposal by South Korea.

Combined photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (L) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. (Kyodo)

Seoul said this month it was considering having a South Korean foundation compensate lawsuit plaintiffs instead of two Japanese corporate defendants over alleged forced labor during Japan's colonial rule.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol vowed to work for an "early settlement" of the wartime labor issue when they met in November in Cambodia, the first official in-person talks between the leaders of the two countries in almost three years.

Japan has maintained that all issues stemming from the 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula were settled "completely and finally" under a bilateral agreement signed in 1965.

Tokyo-Seoul ties reached their lowest point in years over the wartime labor issue and others during the tenure of former South Korean President Moon Jae In, replaced by Yoon in May.

Senior foreign ministry officials from the two countries are expected to meet Monday in Seoul over the issue, according to the South Korean government.

South Korea's proposal was made during a public hearing in Seoul. One of its senior officials then said Japan needs to "sincerely maintain and inherit the deep apology and remorse" already expressed.

The statement by Murayama, issued on the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, has been repeatedly mentioned by successive Cabinets as the government's basic stance.

Murayama said Japan "caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations" through its colonial rule and aggression, stating his "feelings of deep remorse" and "heartfelt apology."

But as the South Korean plaintiffs have demanded that Japan issue a fresh apology and pay compensation, the proposal by the South Korean government has triggered a harsh backlash from their supporters and opposition parties.

Japan regarded the proposal as a positive move, the source said. It also eyes allowing Japanese firms to donate to the South Korean foundation as long as demands for money from the two defendants, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp., are dropped.

In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered the two Japanese firms to pay damages to the plaintiffs. But they have not complied with the decision as they heeded the Japanese government's position that the rulings violate international law.

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