SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea summoned the Japanese ambassador in Seoul on Thursday in protest over visits by senior officials and lawmakers to a shrine seen by Japan's neighbours as a symbol of wartime aggression, the Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea's Yonhap said the South's foreign ministry had called in Tokyo's envoy in protest over the shrine visits and comments made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
China and South Korea chastised Japan after more than 160 lawmakers visited Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine this week.
That followed a symbolic offering made by Abe to the shrine and a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and two other ministers at the weekend.
Such visits to the shrine, a regular occurrence during religious festivals, have long angered Asian nations where the scars of Japan's past militarism still run deep.
The shrine honours Japan's war dead, as well as 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal.
Earlier this week, South Korea's foreign minister cancelled a trip to Tokyo, and Beijing said this week's events showed Japanese leaders continued to deny the nation's militaristic past.
Abe, however, was unapologetic.
"It is only natural to honour the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for the country. Our ministers will not cave in to any threats," Abe told a parliamentary panel on Wednesday.
"It is also my job to protect our pride, which rests on history and tradition."
While defending his actions, Abe also said he was open to dialogue with China and others. Tokyo was also discussing a possible trip by defence officials to Beijing to ease tensions.
Japanese media said the delegation could leave as soon as Thursday, but the defence ministry said details were still being worked out.
Tensions also heated up in a Sino-Japanese row over disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, after a flotilla carrying Japanese nationalists sailed near the rocky islets and China sent eight surveillance ships.
The recurring flare-ups in tensions between Japan, South Korea and China have been a source of concern for Washington, which is keen to secure cooperation from Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing in reining in reclusive North Korea.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park in SEOUL and Kaori Kaneko in TOKYO; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Paul Tait)