SEOUL – The South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry said Friday it is “very regrettable” that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, visited Yasukuni Shrine in April.
“To build friendly relations with neighboring countries, it is necessary to look squarely at history and take a common-sense response,” the ministry said, emphasizing that visits to the shrine would become an obstacle to bilateral relations.
The statement indicates a strong sense of disappointment by the South Korean government, which until now has only called on “the political leaders of Japan” to exercise self-restraint on visits to the shrine.
The administration of President Roh Moo Hyun has a “no compromise” stance on historical issues, so Japan will face strong criticism from Seoul when South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon is scheduled to make an official visit to Japan from Monday with a policy of developing diplomacy focused on the “post-Koizumi” era.
Ban is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Taro Aso and exchange opinions with Abe on bilateral relations.
The South Korean media consider Abe a hardliner for his call for sanctions on North Korea over its abductions of Japanese citizens.
Class-A war criminals and about 2.5 million war dead are enshrined at Yasukuni.
News that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe secretly visited Yasukuni Shrine in April drew reactions Friday as speculation mounts that both he and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may visit the war-linked Shinto shrine on Aug. 15, the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
Abe is the front-runner to become Liberal Democratic Party president on Sept. 20, and thus the next prime minister. He also visited Yasukuni last Aug. 15.
Tsuneaki Gunjima, the leader of a group of plaintiffs who sued for damages over a visit to Yasukuni by Koizumi in 2004, accused Abe of violating the constitutional separation of state and religion.
Expressing anger about Abe’s April visit, Gunjima said, “The chief Cabinet secretary ranks as No. 2 in the Cabinet and paid the visit as a state representative.”
In a landmark decision April 7, 2004, the Fukuoka District Court ruled Koizumi’s August 2001 visit to Yasukuni Shrine violated the constitutional separation of state and religion because he visited as prime minister. But the court rejected the plaintiffs’ demand for damages. The plaintiffs did not appeal.
But Tadashi Itagaki, 82, whose father, Gen. Seishiro Itagaki, was one of 14 Class-A war criminals honored at Yasukuni, welcomed news of Abe’s visit, saying it is natural to mourn the war dead.
“It’s wrong to bring his visit into question,” he said.