By Kiyoshi Takenaka
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their first formal bilateral talks on Monday since both leaders took office, seeking to move beyond a bitter wartime history that has plagued ties between two of Washington's key Asian allies.
The meeting is a diplomatic breakthrough for Abe, who has sought talks with Park amid a push by the United States for Japan and South Korea to improve relations in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
Abe took office in late 2012 and Park in early 2013. Officials said there were no plans for a joint press conference following the discussions, which began around 10:00 a.m. (08:00 p.m. EDT) in Seoul.
The Asian neighbors have struggled to find common ground over Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, particularly the issue of "comfort women", as the mostly Koreans forced into prostitution at Japanese wartime military brothels are euphemistically known in Japan.
Park said in an interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun daily last week that resolving the issue was central to better ties with Japan.
South Korea says Japanese leaders have repeatedly failed to properly atone for wartime atrocities.
Japan, which says the issue of compensation for "comfort women" was legally settled by their 1965 diplomatic treaty and that it stands by a 1993 government apology, worries that even if it takes fresh steps, South Korea will decline to bring the issue to a close.
The Park-Abe meeting came after a summit of South Korean, Japanese and Chinese leaders on Sunday where they agreed to restore what had been an annual forum to work toward greater economic integration and regional cooperation.
"Japan, China and South Korea are neighbors, and because we are neighbors, there are difficult issues among us," Abe said at a news conference with Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
South Korean and Japanese business executives who met last week in Tokyo expressed hope that better ties would improve bilateral trade, which began declining in 2011.
(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Dean Yates)