Seoul's presidential Blue House said Moon talked with Abe for 11 minutes on the sidelines of a regional summit in Thailand where they "agreed to the importance of South Korea-Japan relations and reaffirmed the principle of resolving pending bilateral issues through dialogue."
Moon proposed high-level talks and Abe in response said the countries should exhaust "every possible method" to settle the dispute, Blue House spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said.
"It was the first meeting between the leaders in a very long time, so we hope that the dialogue would pave way (for an improvement) in South Korea-Japan relations," Ko said at a news briefing.
The two U.S. allies in past months have seen their relations sink to a low unseen in decades.
South Korea accused Tokyo of ignoring the suffering of South Koreans under Japan's brutal colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and furiously reacted to Japanese moves to tighten controls on key technology exports to the country and downgrade its trade status.
Ko avoided a specific answer when asked whether the leaders were able to narrow their differences over wartime history. Japanese broadcaster NHK said that during his meeting with Moon, Abe repeated Tokyo's stance that Seoul abide by the 1965 agreement regarding the issue of compensating forced laborers.
The dispute has spilled over to security issues, with Seoul saying it plans to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo that symbolized their three-way security cooperation with Washington in face of the North Korean nuclear threat and China's growing regional influence.
Following an angry reaction from the Trump administration, Seoul said it could reconsider its decision to end the military agreement if Japan relists South Korea as a favored trade partner. The pact, known as the general security of military information agreement, or GSOMIA, will expire in late November.
Monday's meeting between Moon and Abe was their first since they held a summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018. Abe passed up a chance for a meeting when Moon visited Osaka, Japan, for the Group of 20 events in June, weeks before his government announced strengthened export controls on certain chemicals South Korean companies use to produce computer chips and smartphone displays.
In recent weeks, South Korea has taken steps to de-escalate the feud, apparently because the deadline is approaching on the military agreement. Moon sent Prime Minster Lee Nak-yon, Seoul's No. 2, to Tokyo last month to attend Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremonies and propose more diplomatic efforts between the countries.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.