Incoming S. Korean leader snubs Abe

Park's move seen as heralding rough ride in relations with Japan ahead

SEOUL - South Korea's president-elect Park Geun Hye has "respectfully" declined to meet a special envoy of Japan's incoming prime minister Shinzo Abe, a move seen as heralding a rough ride in relations between the two new governments.

Mr Abe had planned to send his congratulatory letter to Ms Park last weekend via former finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga and three other senior members of the Japan-South Korea parliamentarians' association.

But Ms Park's side "respectfully" declined the meeting due to her "extremely tight schedule", the Korea Herald reported on Sunday.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have turned frosty due to a territorial dispute over South Korea- controlled islets of Dokdo - which Japan calls Takeshima - and Japan's refusal to atone for atrocities committed during its 1910-1945 colonial rule over Korea.

"Mr Nukaga contacted us on Thursday, a day after the presidential election, that four lawmakers including himself wished to visit Ms Park this weekend with Mr Abe's letter," one of her aides was quoted as saying by Yonhap News agency last Friday.

"(After learning that the meeting will not be possible) I delivered her message that it'd be better to rearrange the plan after Mr Abe's official inauguration slated for Wednesday," the aide said.

The dispatch, which contained Mr Abe's "will to normalise the two countries' relations", was later handed over to Ms Park in Seoul by Japan's ambassador Koro Bessho.

Officials with Ms Park's Saenuri Party denied any political factors behind her refusal.

Still, observers said that even with Ms Park's hectic schedule, she should have taken into account mounting concerns over Mr Abe's reputation as a staunch nationalist and Japan's newfound passion for a rightward shift.

The decision also contrasts with Ms Park's agreement with US President Barack Obama to strengthen the two countries' alliance and "meet in the near term" during a telephone conversation last Friday.

Mr Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party swept back into power after the Dec 16 general elections, now appears to be making efforts to prevent his campaign pledges, including holding a nationwide Takeshima Day claiming Japan's sovereignty over the islets, from eroding ties with Japan's neighbours.

Last Friday, Mr Abe hinted at shelving the plan to upgrade Takeshima Day from local to nationwide level on Feb 22, which will likely further sour bilateral ties as it will happen just ahead of Ms Park's presidential inaugural ceremony on Feb 25.

He will make a decision "considering the overall foreign relations situation", he told reporters in Tokyo.

"There's room for self-restraint though as the US wouldn't want to see its two allies clash over historical problems at a time when their trilateral cooperation is extremely important," said Mr Jin Chang Soo, a senior fellow at the independent Sejong Institute, referring to North Korea's recent rocket launch.