SEOUL – South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se has canceled his scheduled trip to Japan this week, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Monday in the wake of controversial visits by members of the Cabinet to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
An official said the visits to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo, which is widely viewed as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, took place against Seoul’s wishes and has soured the atmosphere for bilateral talks.
Yun, who had planned to hold his first bilateral talks with counterpart Fumio Kishida during a two-day visit to Tokyo from Friday, abandoned the plan after the visit by three ministers to Yasukuni over the weekend and a ritual offering — but no trip — to the shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Abe made an offering of a “masakaki” tree, traditionally used in Shinto religious rituals, with his name written below his title of prime minister.
On Monday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing “deep concerns and regrets” over the shrine visits by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister, Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals, and Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo.
“Our government strongly urges the Japanese government to immediately halt anachronistic acts oblivious to the past history and take responsible measures based on the correct recognition of the history to recover trust from neighboring countries,” it said.
South Korean media, quoting a senior government official in Seoul, reported later in the day that it was Aso’s shrine visit in particular that immediate caused Yun’s cancellation.
Past visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni, which enshrines convicted World War II Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s other war dead, have triggered diplomatic disputes with China and South Korea, both of which were invaded by the Japanese military during the war.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said South Korea has not officially notified Japan of the cancellation. Although the bilateral foreign ministerial meeting was under preparation, “the date had not been fixed,” he said.
Japan’s top government spokesman said that, as he believes the three ministers visited the shrine in a “private capacity,” the government will not place any restrictions on such visits as they are a spiritual matter.
Furuya mixed his comments, saying he was visiting both privately and publicly.
“Every country has its own stance (on such matters) and I believe the differences in stance should not affect diplomatic relations,” Suga said.
Despite a shared concern over North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests and its bellicose war threats, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have remained chilly since last August when then-President Lee Myung Bak made an unprecedented visit to a pair of disputed islets it administers in the Sea of Japan, prompting Tokyo to recall its ambassador from Seoul in protest.
At the time, Lee said his visit to the South Korean-controlled islets — known in Japan as Takeshima and in South Korea as Dokdo — was intended to pressure Japan to address grievances stemming from its harsh 1910-1945 attempt to colonize the Korean Peninsula, and the issue of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the war.
Under Japanese rule, Koreans were banned from using their own language at schools and were forced to adopt Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of them were mobilized as forced laborers.
Yun and Kishida had been expected to discuss strategies to defuse the heightened tension on the Peninsula, as well as the timing of a trilateral summit involving South Korea, Japan and China.
The three countries have held such summits every year since 2008. As host of this year’s trilateral summit, South Korea had been trying to arrange it for late May in Seoul.
But a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said last Wednesday that “hopes of a May summit are dashed” due to China’s call for a postponement, citing its territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
As a result, a foreign ministers’ meeting among the three Asian titans, which normally precedes the trilateral summit by about a month, is unlikely to be held this month as originally considered.
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