South Korea and China denied a news report yesterday that they had agreed to accept visits to a Tokyo war shrine by future Japanese leaders if current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stays away for the rest of his term.
Koizumi intends to step down next month, but is widely expected to make a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine tomorrow, the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender. Such a visit is certain to spur outrage among Japan's neighbors.
Kyodo News service reported yesterday that China and South Korea -- which have vehemently protested Koizumi's past visits to Yasukuni -- would accept one visit a year from future prime ministers if Koizumi stays away.
Kyodo cited "informed Japanese sources" as saying China and South Korea had been holding behind-the-scenes talks on how to address the Yasukuni visits.
But a Chinese Embassy spokesman denied the report as "totally groundless," Kyodo said.
"The Chinese side's position on the issue of visits to Yasukuni Shrine ... is very clear and there is no change," Kyodo quoted the spokesman as saying.
In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue, also dismissed the report as "totally groundless."
He said Seoul would file an immediate protest to Tokyo if Koizumi visits tomorrow.
Officials from Japan's Foreign Ministry were not available yesterday to comment on the report.
The front-runner to replace Koizumi is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. He has visited Yasukuni in the past and has staunchly supported Koizumi's pilgrimages, but has not said whether he would worship there as prime minister.
Yasukuni honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals executed after World War II. Beijing has refused top-level talks with Tokyo since Koizumi's last visit in October, accusing him of glorifying Japan's brutal militaristic past.
The shrine played a high-profile role in promoting wartime nationalism, with Japanese soldiers commonly pledging to fight to the death with the promise to "meet at Yasukuni." It also hosts a museum that attempts to justify Japan's former militarism.