S. Korea says high-level exchange with Japan 'not easy'

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's foreign minister said on Monday that it would be difficult to resume top-level exchanges with Japan, as he accused Tokyo of "pouring cold water" on Seoul's efforts to improve ties.

In his first media briefing since taking office in March, Mr Yun Byung-Se highlighted visits by senior Japanese politicians to a shrine housing the remains of war criminals and inflammatory comments by the likes of Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto.

"All of the recent anachronistic moves are pouring cold water on our determination to improve relations with Japan," Mr Yun said.

"Unless the current diplomatic atmosphere improves, I'm afraid that exchanges among high-level officials, let alone between the top leaders, will not be that easy," he added.

The legacy of Japan's brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule over South Korea has always been a source of friction, with Seoul insisting that Tokyo has not shown enough repentance for the suffering it inflicted.

South Korea was angered by Japanese cabinet ministers and lawmakers recently visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which honours 2.5 million war dead including 14 leading war criminals.

The visits prompted Mr Yun to shelve a proposed trip to Tokyo in protest, while President Park Geun Hye warned Japan against shifting to the right and aggravating the "scars of the past".

Relations took another hit after Mr Hashimoto said this month that South Korean "comfort women" forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II had been performing a "necessary" function.

Such remarks were "not just embarrassing, but shameful", said Mr Yun.

"I think that such comments should be stopped not only for the sake of him but also for the sake of decent people in Japan," he said.

But the foreign minister rejected suggestions that the tensions would affect cooperation with Japan in dealing with North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme.

The two US allies see "eye to eye" on the issue of North Korea and would continue to work closely together, Mr Yun said.