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Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

Yasukuni 'nightmare' for ties: Seoul ambassador


Staff writer

South Korea's ambassador to Japan called Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine a "nightmare" -- the sole issue damaging what could have been more amicable ties between the two neighbors.

News photo
South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong Yil gives a speech Wednesday at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

But Ra Jong Yil's nightmare may not be over even after Koizumi steps down in September, when his term as Liberal Democratic Party president expires, if his successor also visits the shrine, a development both South Korea and China would oppose.

"People in (a) leading position of the country going to worship at this kind of place cannot be a personal and private matter," Ra said Wednesday in a lecture given in English at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University cosponsored by The Japan Times.

Ra's comments come as concerns mount in both South Korea and China that Koizumi's potential successors, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, may also pay homage at the shrine that honors the nation's war dead, as well as a number of Class-A war criminals.

If that happens, the Yasukuni issue is likely to remain a headache for the two nations even after Koizumi leaves center stage.

Koizumi most recently visited the shrine last October, bringing bilateral ties with Seoul and Beijing to a new low.

Ra also voiced displeasure over Japan's reluctance to build a secular war memorial, which would allow the nation's top leaders to pay their respects to the war dead without triggering resentment overseas.

Although Koizumi promised to seriously consider constructing such a memorial during a summit last year with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, Tokyo has failed to take concrete action, he said.

"So far, there is no clue that the Japanese government is giving thought to this serious problem," Ra said.

During the June summit in Seoul, Koizumi said the government would consider building a new national war memorial "while taking public opinion in Japan into account."

Senior government officials have since claimed that opinions in Japan are split on whether to build a new memorial, prompting the government to decide not to include a feasibility study for a memorial in its draft budget for fiscal 2006 budget that was compiled last month.

Ra criticized Koizumi for provoking bilateral tension despite efforts on the part of Roh to mend ties.

"Last year in June, our president said in public (that) he would not raise any question related to the past" during his term, Ra said. "But who is (still) opening up old wounds, rubbing salt (into) old wounds?"

The ambassador said South Koreans felt betrayed at Tokyo's inaction when the Shimane Prefectural Assembly passed a resolution last March declaring Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day" to mark the day it says isles controlled by South Korea were incorporated into the prefecture a century ago.

The islets in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japan and Tok-do in South Korea, are the subject of a long-standing bilateral territorial dispute.

The assembly's move triggered a public outcry in South Korea, and strong protests from Seoul. But Tokyo said it had no power to intervene in the matter because the vote falls under the jurisdiction of a local government.

"The central government of Japan, to Korean eyes, didn't seem to care that much," Ra said, adding that many South Koreans felt that Japan was trying to again invade their nation.



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