S. Korea calls in Japan envoy over war shrine row

South Korea called in Japan's ambassador Thursday to lodge a strong protest in an escalating diplomatic row over visits by Japanese cabinet ministers and lawmakers to a controversial war shrine.

First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kyou-Hyun told Ambassador Koro Bessho that Tokyo needed to recall the "enormous pain and damage" its wartime aggression and colonial expansion caused to countries such as South Korea.

"We express strong regrets over the distorted understanding of history and anachronistic remarks by the Japanese government and politicians," Kim was quoted as saying.

The protest came a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended a series of visits by ministers and legislators to the Yasukuni shrine, regarded by South Korea and China as a symbol of wartime aggression.

The shrine honours 2.5 million war dead, including 14 leading war criminals.

On Wednesday, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye warned Japan against shifting to the right and aggravating the "scars of the past".

Reacting to the summoning of the Japanese ambassador, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, echoed Abe's defence of the Yasukuni visits.

"I think in any country it is natural to express respect to the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation," Suga told reporters at a regular Tokyo press briefing.

"South Korea and China are important neighbours. We do not hope to see the issue over the Yasukuni impact our overall relationship," he added.