SEOUL — Days after a provocative visit to a pair of disputed islets, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called on Japan to take responsibility for its imperial past in a speech on the anniversary of the end of Japanese rule.

“Japan is a close neighbor. It is also a close ally that shares the same values and it is also an important partner,” he said during his annual Liberation Day speech in Seoul. “However, it needs to be pointed out that the shackles of Japan’s past hold back the move towards the future, not only for Korea and Japan but for the northeast Asian community in general.”

Liberation Day commemorates the end of Japan’s 35-year colonial rule of South Korea in 1945, which still carries painful memories for many in the South. The president’s speech is typically a sweeping overview of matters facing the country that is similar to the State of the Union address in the United States.

Lee chastised Japan for its failure to address the issue of sexual slavery during its occupation of the Korean peninsula. South Korea has repeatedly called for Japan to apologize for its abuse of so-called comfort women, who were forced to have sex with Japanese troops.

Lee said the comfort women are a matter that “goes beyond the two countries” and are a “violation of the universal rights of mankind.”

Tensions between the two key U.S. allies have ratcheted up sharply in the past week, following Lee’s visit on Friday to the tiny Dokdo islets, located approximately halfway between the two countries.

Both nations claim the islands, called Takeshima in Japan. Lee is the first South Korean president to visit the islands.

Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea after Lee’s visit, and has said it might ask the International Court of Justice to determine ownership of the islands, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. refers to the islands as the Liancourt Rocks and has largely maintained neutrality on the issue.

Much of Lee’s speech focused on South Korea’s economic recovery during the global economic crisis.

He spoke briefly about North Korea, but did not specifically mention new leader Kim Jong Un, who assumed leadership of the country in December after the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

“North Korea is facing a situation where it needs to face reality and seek changes,” Lee said, adding that denuclearization efforts on the peninsula are an “obligation” for the North.

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