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(News Focus) Shrine visit chills S. Korea-Japan ties
SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- In a rare diplomatic reprisal against Japanese ministers visiting a controversial war shrine, South Korea's top diplomat canceled his planned trip to Japan this week, dashing hopes of mending the already fragile ties between the two nations, Seoul officials said Monday.

   South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se had been scheduled to make a two-day visit to Tokyo from Friday and hold bilateral talks with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, which would have marked their first meeting since Yun took office.

   However, Yun decided to scrap his planned talks with Kishida following a series of visits by Japan's cabinet ministers to the Yasukuni shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including 14 designated as Class A criminals by the allies in the trials that followed World War II.

   "Over the past days, we delivered our stance several times to the Japanese government that they should not visit the Yasukuni shrine. However, the Japanese ministers ignored our stance," said a high-ranking official at Seoul's foreign ministry.

   "Minister Yun eventually decided not to visit Japan after Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, paid his tribute to the shrine," the official said in a background briefing.

   The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the visit by Aso to the shrine was "irresponsible," because he attended the inauguration ceremony of President Park Geun-hye in late February as a special envoy of Japan.

   "So, the cancellation of Yun's visit to Japan sent a clear signal that the Korean government will continue to take a principled approach toward Japan," the official said.

   Worsening the mood in South Korea was an offering by Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of a "masakaki" tree that is traditionally used in rituals to the shrine, with his name written under the title of "prime minister."

   Other Japanese ministers who visited the shrine in recent days included Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, and Katsunobu Kato, deputy chief cabinet secretary.

   Another official at Seoul's foreign ministry, who also requested anonymity, said the shrine visits dampened the prospects of improving ties between the two nations.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young reads a statement denouncing visits by Japanese ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine on April 22. (Yonhap)

In a terse statement, Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said that Seoul "expresses deep concern and regret over the fact that the Japanese prime minister made an offering to the Yasukuni shrine and incumbent officials, including the deputy prime minister, visited the shrine, which glorifies Japan's wars of aggression that caused huge loss and pain to the peoples of neighboring countries and enshrines its war criminals."

   "(South Korea) once again strongly urges the Japanese government to immediately stop its retrograde behavior which ignores history, and to behave responsibly based on a correct understanding of history, so that Japan can restore trust with neighboring countries," Cho said, according to the statement.

   Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have chilled following former President Lee Myung-bak's unprecedented visit to the South Korean islets of Dokdo last August. Lee cited Tokyo's unrepentant attitude over its brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula as a key reason for his trip.

   Although Japan's Prime Minister Abe has voiced hope for repairing ties with South Korea, Tokyo has continued to anger Seoul by renewing its claim to Dokdo.

   Dokdo, which lies closer to South Korea in the body of water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, has long been a thorn in relations between the two countries. South Korea keeps a small police detachment on the islets.

   In South Korea, memories are still fresh over Japan's harsh colonial, which left deep scars on the hearts of Koreans as they were banned from using their own language at schools and forced to adopt Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were also mobilized as forced laborers and sex slaves, euphemistically called "comfort women."