(News Focus) Seoul-Tokyo ties remain icy one year after Lee's Dokdo visit

SEOUL, Aug. 6 (Yonhap) -- A year after former President Lee Myung-bak's high-profile visit to Dokdo, relations between South Korea and Japan remain frosty with no signs of improvement following a recent series of provocative actions by Tokyo, analysts said Tuesday.

Bilateral ties took a major blow after the former South Korean president set foot on the easternmost South Korean islets on Aug. 10 last year, becoming the first sitting local head of state to do so.

The bold move, intended to reassert South Korea's sovereignty over the islets, sparked a strong backlash from Tokyo, which has long laid claim to the outcroppings that lie about halfway between the countries.

Along with other historical issues stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, territorial claims over Dokdo have been a source of on-and-off political tensions between the two neighbors.

Tensions have recently escalated further as Japan's Shinzo Abe administration, installed last December, took a string of nationalistic moves seeking to whitewash its colonial rule and reinforce the military capacity.

Late last month, Japan's hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as the finance minister, angered South Korea and other countries by saying that Japan should learn from Nazi Germany's tactics to rewrite the constitution in order to build up military power, reminding neighbors of Japan's past imperialism and militarism. Amid strong protests, Aso withdrew the remarks.

Abe also drew criticism in July by refusing in a television debate to admit to Japan's invasion of Asian countries in the early 20th century.

The strained relations took a turn for the worse after the Japanese Cabinet Office on Thursday released its first survey on the South Korean islets, showing six out of 10 Japanese consider Dokdo as their own territory.

Analysts say the two countries may face unusually long tensions, possibly toward the end of this year, with the planned visit by some Japanese political leaders to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine on Aug. 15 expected to worsen their relations.

South Korea this week warned Japanese politicians against paying homage at the Shinto shrine honoring Japan's war criminals and other war dead after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's policy chief Sanae Takaichi was reported to join other politicians in paying respect at the shrine on the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II on Aug. 15.

South Korea celebrates it as the Day of National Liberation from Japan's colonial rule and considers Japanese visits to the shrine as official acts denying past colonial and war atrocities.

On major national events, Japanese leaders often pay visits to the shrine located in central Tokyo in what is seen as respect to patriots killed in the service of the country.

The prolonged tension between South Korea and Japan comes as the countries take tougher stances on their past history in light of each country's domestic politics and public opinion, analysts said.

"South Korea has become more sensitive about its historical issues as the South Korea-Japan relations have reached a more equal level," said Chin Chang-soo, a Japan expert at the Sejong Institute.

"Japan also responds more seriously now to bilateral issues with South Korea due to domestic public opinion supporting the defending of national interest, including territorial ownership."

A Seoul government source said Tokyo should first move to tone down its nationalistic provocations in order to start to normalize relations with Seoul.

"Unless Japan stops making history-distorting remarks, bilateral relations will continue to remain the same," the source said, refusing to be identified.

Due to the strained relations, the neighboring countries have yet to hold a summit meeting even after months of new governments were installed in both countries.

After taking office in February, South Korean President Park Geun-hye flew to the United States in May to meet with President Barack Obama and held a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in China in June. For past South Korean presidents, Japan had always been the second state visit destination after being sworn in.

The foreign ministry has said Park has no plan to hold a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, which analysts say speaks volumes about the current state of bilateral relations.

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