South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yong on Thursday visited a facility in Seoul for former “comfort women” who seek a formal apology and compensation from Japan for coercing them into sexual slavery during wartime.

The move came as South Korea and Japan prepare to hold a “strategic dialogue” this month in Tokyo involving Cho and his Japanese Foreign Ministry counterpart Akitaka Saiki, which is likely to take up the comfort women issue.

If realized, it will be the first such meeting since South Korean President Park Geun Hye took office in February last year.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Roh Kwang Il said Cho’s visit to the facility for former comfort women is in line with the country’s long-standing practice of paying courtesy calls on the elderly ahead of Chuseok, the harvest moon festival that starts Monday.

Noting that the women “suffered greatly their entire lives,” he said the vice foreign minister visited them “to explain about the government’s efforts to resolve the issue.”

The issue remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks in improving strained ties between South Korea and Japan.

The South Korean government backs the women’s demands for a formal apology and compensation, stressing that time is of the essence as the dozens who remain alive are all advanced in age.

In a statement issued last Friday, the Foreign Ministry said, “The issue of sexual slavery victims drafted for Japan’s Imperial Army during World War II is a current issue of universal human rights and sexual violence against women in wartime.”

Urging a settlement “as soon as possible,” it said the Japanese government “should squarely face the essence and nature of the issue of its military sexual slavery victims and present a solution to the issue that is specific and acceptable to the victims.”

Japan maintains that issues relating to its 1910-1945 rule over Korea, including reparations and claims by individuals, were legally settled with South Korea by a 1965 treaty in which the two neighboring countries normalized their relations.

It also says clear expressions of remorse and apology have been made by the government on various occasions regarding the comfort women issue and other issues relating to Japan’s wartime actions.

In a 1993 statement issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, the government then admitted that the Japanese military was involved in the establishment and management of comfort stations and that the women were recruited against their will in many cases.

But the current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while expressing sympathy for the “immeasurable pain and suffering” experienced by comfort women, has not recognized the existence of evidence they were forcibly rounded up and taken away to comfort stations.

by Kyodo International