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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Japanese shrine visit angers Seoul
A Shinto priest leaders Mr Koizumi through the Yasukuni shrine
Koizumi has avoided a controversial date later this year
South Korea has made an official protest to Japan after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid an unexpected visit to one of his country's most controversial war shrines at the weekend.

South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong summoned the Japanese ambassador and expressed "strong regrets" over the incident, which came less than six weeks before the two countries co-host the World Cup.

After careful consideration, I thought I could honestly express my genuine feelings by visiting the shrine today in line with the spring peace festival

Junichiro Koizumi
China also reacted strongly against the visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which is a memorial to Japan's war dead but also honours a number of convicted war criminals.

Mr Koizumi's visit to the shrine last year, the first by a serving Japanese prime minister in 16 years, led to a barrage of protests.

That visit was particularly sensitive because it came shortly before the 15 August anniversary of Japan's surrender, which ended World War II.

South Korea, China, and other Asian countries, which suffered under Japan's war-time rule, view the shrine visit as an attempt to glorify Japan's past.

China summoned the Japanese ambassador to Beijing to express its displeasure over the visit, according to the Xinhua news agency.

The Beijing foreign ministry also expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with the action, saying that China "resolutely opposes" all such visits.

South Korean protester tears a rising sun flag
Previous visits sparked South Korean protests
And the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: "We are very concerned that the visit is made to remember convicted war criminals who made neighbouring nations undergo deep pain and suffer the ravages of war".

Liberals within Japan itself have also accused Mr Koizumi of trying to stir up nationalist sentiment.

Few Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine, aware of the sensitivities involved.

Nationalism fears

But Mr Koizumi spoke of peace after he was led through the shrine by a white-clad Shinto priest.

"The meaning of my visit is to express my hope that we will never have another war," he said.

"There is no change in the friendship and promotion of exchanges with China and South Korea. I think I can gain their understanding," Mr Koizumi told reporters.

The Yasukuni Shrine
Fourteen war criminals are among those honoured

A similar visit last year sparked a furious reaction from China and the two Koreas, which suffered from Japanese aggression and imperialism in the first half of the 20th Century.

Relations with China and South Korea were damaged for several months afterwards.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon says that the timing seems to show that Mr Koizumi has accepted that a visit then would be unduly provocative.

Our correspondent says that by going four months early and keeping his visit low-profile, the Japanese prime minister feels he is making a concession to his critics.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"Any appearance by a politician here is bound to be controversial"
See also:

09 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese book angers South Korea
01 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi shrine visit sparks lawsuits
15 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan apologises to South Korea
08 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi apologises to China
13 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi's balancing act
13 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Anger over Japan PM's shrine visit
22 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
World Cup hosts stress teamwork
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