Korea irked by Shindo’s shrine visit

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Korea irked by Shindo’s shrine visit

Another member in the cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses more than a dozen Class-A war criminals among its dead, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the country, prompting fierce backlash from both Seoul and Beijing.

Yoshitaka Shindo, Japan’s minister of internal affairs and communication, visited the shrine in Tokyo Saturday morning.

His visit comes before the expected timing of a pilgrimage by conservative lawmakers to the temple, which falls during an annual spring festival between April 21 and 23.

The celebration partially coincides with Obama’s stopover in the Japanese capital, scheduled for April 23 to 25, which may explain why Shindo appears to have opted for an earlier visit. Obama will head to Seoul afterward.

This comes despite multiple warnings from Seoul and the international community that Japanese politicians’ visits to the shrine - considered a symbol of Japan’s imperialist past and militarism - can be construed as the government’s denial of its wartime aggressions.

On Dec. 26, Prime Minister Abe made his first visit to the shrine since taking office, a move that resulted in a rare expression of “disappointment” from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on top of international criticism. Washington has recently been put in a situation where it has had to act as a mediator between the two neighbors, which comes as the United States pivots toward Asia and has emphasized the importance of an alliance among the three nations.

Japanese media reported that Abe would probably not make a repeat visit to the Yasukuni Shrine for the spring festival, especially after the backlash in December and ahead of a critical summit with Obama scheduled for April 24. Instead, the prime minister is likely to send a ritual offering like he did last spring to appease the country’s nationalists.

Shindo told reporters afterward that he made the visit in a “private capacity.”

He has paid his respects at the shrine numerous times, including on the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender on Aug. 15, in October and on New Year’s Day. A record 168 lawmakers and three cabinet members visited the Yasukuni Shrine on April 23 last year during the spring festival.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its disapproval over Shindo’s visit in a statement.

“A Japanese minister visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies past aggression by Japan, is an action that outright challenges the international community and neighboring countries that have suffered from Japan’s past imperialism,” it said.

Likewise, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a protest against the cabinet member’s action, which spokeswoman Hong Lei said “exposes once again the current Japanese cabinet’s wrong attitude toward history.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a similar statement, warning that such visits deepen “distrust” and are “unconstructive” to peace and stability in the region.

Shindo’s trip comes as the Korean Foreign Ministry yesterday announced that a senior governmental meeting will be held on Wednesday in Seoul to discuss the withstanding issue of Japan’s sexual enslavement of women and girls during World War II.

The gathering is the first of its kind.

Lee Sang-deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau, is scheduled to meet with Junichi Ihara, the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. The ministry said that the two countries “agreed to expand negotiations on working, senior and vice-ministerial levels.”

A director general-level meeting on the issue of “comfort women,” as they are euphemistically known, was decided upon ahead of a summit in The Hague late March with the leaders of Korea, the United States and Japan.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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