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 Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo honours 2.5 million war dead, including 14 leading war criminals and is regarded by South Korea and China as a symbol of wartime aggression.

Hours after Kim's meeting with Bessho, dozens of activists with anti-Japanese placards rallied outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, calling on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to apologise after he defended lawmakers' visits.

There were minor scuffles with police when the protesters burned Abe's effigy and a Japanese imperial army flag, but there were no injuries or arrests.

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 in Tokyo.

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

In Seoul, South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said Suga's response was "truly incomprehensible" while China insisted he was missing the point.

"No matter in what capacity or form the Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine, it is essentially an attempt to deny Japan's history of invasion," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.

"We believe only by taking history as a mirror can Japan face the future," Hua said.

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