China unveils memorial to Korean assassin who killed former Japan PM

BEIJING (AFP) - China has unveiled a memorial to a South Korean national hero who assassinated a Japanese official a century ago, with Sino-Japanese relations at their lowest point in years.

In 1909, Ahn Jung Geun shot and killed Hirobumi Ito, Japan's first prime minister and its top official in Japanese-occupied Korea, at the railway station in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin.

Ahn was hanged by Japanese forces the following year, when Korea also formally became a Japanese colony, heralding a brutal occupation that lasted until the end of World War II in 1945.

Japan's government vehemently opposes the monument and has condemned Ahn as "a criminal", but Chinese and South Korean officials hailed the construction of the memorial and contended that it was intended not to provoke a diplomatic row but rather to promote peace.

"People have cherished the memory of Ahn for the past century," Mr Sun Yao, the vice governor of China's Heilongjiang province, said at the unveiling on Sunday, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

"Today we erect a memorial to him and call on peace loving people around the world to unite, resist invasions and oppose war."

Japan's occupation has left a bitter legacy in China and both Koreas, and Ahn remains a potent symbol - in July fans at an East Asia Cup football match between South Korea and Japan in Seoul unveiled a giant banner of his image.

Tensions were ratcheted up last month when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first sitting prime minister since 2006 to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honours several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II and serves as a reminder of Japan's 20th century aggression.

Abe insisted that he had "no intention at all to hurt the feelings of Chinese or South Korean people" and that the aim of his visit was "to pledge to create an era where people will never suffer from catastrophe in war".

In November, when China announced that it was cooperating with South Korea on the Ahn project, Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga criticised the move and said it was "not good for relations between Japan and South Korea".

In a commentary on Sunday, Xinhua likewise wrote that "the opening of Ahn's memorial is not to inflict pain, but to shed light on the history of northeastern Asia".

"History is the teacher of life," the commentary continued. "Alarm bells shall not go unheeded. With Japan treading a dangerous path once again, the need for vigilance and a joint international effort is clear if we are to prevent a Japanese militarist resurgence."