China, Japan spar over Korean national hero

BEIJING- Beijing and Tokyo, which have bickered over islands, air defence zones and a Japanese war shrine, have crossed swords again - this time over China's move to commemorate a Korean national hero whom Japan labels a terrorist.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China rejects Japan's criticisms of a joint monument launched on Sunday in Harbin, capital of north-eastern Heilongjiang province, that celebrates the life of Ahn Jung Geun.

"Ahn is a famous anti-Japanese hero and deserves respect from the Chinese people. China has set up the memorial in accordance with its laws. The move is perfectly reasonable so we do not accept the so-called protest from Japan," said Mr Hong at a regular briefing yesterday.

Yesterday morning, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had expressed Tokyo's regret to Beijing and Seoul over the monument to Ahn, who is known for killing Japan's first prime minister Hirobumi Ito, then its top official in Japanese-occupied Korea.

"We recognise Ahn Jung Geun as a terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing our country's first prime minister," he said.

"I cannot help saying that it is not contributing to building peace and cooperative relations in this region that South Korea and China took the joint cross-border move based on unilateral evaluation on a matter that happened in the previous century," he added.

Ahn, who killed Ito in 1909 at the Harbin railway station, was hanged the next year after Korea became a Japanese colony, ushering in decades of Japanese rule till the end of World War II in 1945.

Observers say his memorial is proof of recent warm ties between China and South Korea, helped in large part by their common disdain towards Japan, which had also occupied north-eastern China, from 1931 to 1945.

Another factor for balmy Sino-Korean relations is the personal chemistry between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Korean counterpart Park Geun Hye.

Seoul said yesterday that it welcomes the memorial as "an opportunity for north-east Asian countries to... set the path for genuine peace and cooperation based on correct historical awareness".

In contrast, Sino-Japanese ties have hit rock bottom since September 2012 when Tokyo nationalised part of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea claimed by both sides.

Both sides have also sparred over China's air defence identification zone launched last November that includes the disputed islands.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit in December to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine that honours 14 Class A war criminals also irked Beijing, which views his move as a sign of Japan's intent to remilitarise.

Yesterday, Mr Hong did not miss a chance to hit out at Mr Abe's shrine visit in his reply over the Ahn memorial.

"Recently, (the Japanese) leader's shrine visit triggered strong dissatisfaction from the Asian and global community. We hope Japan will face and reflect objectively on history, correct its stance over the shrine so as to win back trust from other countries," he said.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.