By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is boiling over in anger at Japan after its prime minister suggested that Tokyo's colonization of Korea may not be determined as an "act of aggression," a remark that touched a raw nerve in the neighbor, which still deeply resents its colonial-era suffering.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary meeting Tuesday the definition of aggression is vague academically and internationally, and depends on from which side one looks at the situation. That apparently meant he does not regard the country's militaristic past, including the 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea, as an aggressive act.
The remark added fuel to anger already running high after Japanese Cabinet ministers and lawmakers made visits in large numbers to a Tokyo shine honoring Japan's war dead, including Class A criminals, even knowing such action would spark strong protests from South Korea and China.
South Korean officials expressed strong regret about Abe's remark.
"This makes us fundamentally question the Abe Cabinet's perception of history. This is strongly regrettable," a foreign ministry official said. "A correct perception of history is the basis of stable Korea-Japan relations. While sticking to a firm principle, we will continue to urge Japan to understand history correctly."
Many South Korean newspapers splashed big headlines about Abe's remark on their front pages Wednesday, such as "Abe even denies Imperial Japan's aggression," "Japan reveals true color" and "Diplomatic provocations made by Abe regime on back of popularity."
The ruling and opposition parties also lashed out at Japan in unison.
"We are concerned everyday that the specter of Japan's militarism may be reviving," said Rep. Lee Hye-hoon of the ruling Saenuri Party during a meeting of party leaders, stressing that Japan should offer a courageous apology and back it up with responsible action.
Rep. Moon Hee-sang, the leader of the main opposition Democratic United Party, accused Japan of openly demonstrating its return to militarism and revealing sinister ambitions about militarism. He urged President Park Geun-hye to deal strongly with Japan's moves to "shatter peace in Asia."
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are sure to plunge again.
Even before Abe's remark, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se had already canceled a planned trip to Tokyo in protest of Japanese Cabinet members paying homage at the Yasukuni shrine. The possibility of a summit between Park and Abe was also thrown into doubt.
Experts say Abe's denial of aggression is fundamentally different from other problems, such as long-running disputes over history textbooks and the sovereignty over South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo, which Japan has claimed as its own territory.
"It is unprecedented that Japan's prime minister has made remarks denying the aggression in parliament," said Chin Chang-soo, a top Korea-Japan relations expert at the Sejong Institute think tank. "I am very concerned about the consequences this will bring about."
Chin said a summit between the two countries is unlikely until October or November.
Japan's harsh colonial rule left deep scars on the hearts of Koreans. During that period, Koreans 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.
Japan has offered an apology over the colonial rule many times before, but South Koreans view such apologies as insincere because Japanese leaders and politicians have not backed them up with action and continued to engage in such moves as visiting the shrine and distorting history.
South Korea and Japan are key trade partners and should cooperate closely in efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. But issues related to the colonial rule have often badly strained their relations. The latest spat could impair efforts to deal with an increasingly menacing North Korea.
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