SEOUL, Mar 1 (Reuters) South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun today urged Japan to stop all actions that diluted its apology for past aggression, saying Tokyo's neighbours were justifiably upset.
Japan's ties with South Korea and China have been strained over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni war shrine and cabinet members' comments that critics say justify and embellish Japan's war of aggression.
''Japan has already apologised,'' Roh said in a speech marking a 1919 uprising in South Korea against Japanese colonial rule. ''We are objecting to actions that negate that apology,'' he said.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologised for the country's colonial past in 1995 and Koizumi repeated it last year.
Japan colonised the Korean peninsula from 1910 until its defeat in World War Two in 1945. Many in South and North Korea and China see Japanese leaders' visits to Yasukuni shrine, where some convicted war criminals are honoured among its 2.5 million war dead, as deeply offensive.
About 100 protesters rallied in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, some setting fire to the Japanese flag and pictures of Koizumi before police moved in and doused the flames.
A group of former South Korean commandos rallied with a battering ram, calling for Koizumi's ouster, but they did not use it or try to storm the embassy compound.
Roh noted he had made a call a year ago for Japan to overcome its militarist legacy and make sincere efforts to improve ties.
''But in the past year, with the shrine visits, distortion in history textbooks and the Tokto issue, nothing has changed much,'' he said.
HISTORY LESSONS South Korea has protested against Tokyo's approval of history textbooks that Seoul says whitewash atrocities committed in Korea, China and other parts of Asia.
South Korea and Japan are also locked in a territorial dispute over two rocky islets -- called Tokto in Korean and Takeshima in Japan and occupied by South Korea -- midway between the two countries.
''It is natural, when the situation is like this, for our people to believe Japan may be trying to justify its history of aggression and control and to return to the road of domination,'' Roh said.
Koizumi has said his annual visits to the shrine are to pray for peace and ''a matter of the heart''. He has also described outside criticism as abnormal.
Roh rejected the logic and said what counted was how neighbouring countries that had been victimised felt and not what the Japanese leader said.
Japan needed to act with conscience and win the trust of the international community, rather than trying to reinforce its military, if it wanted to become ''an ordinary country'' and a true world leader, Roh said.
A presidential Blue House official denied Roh was speaking against a possible constitutional amendment mulled by Japanese political parties that would recognise its right to maintain a military and play a bigger role in regional and global security.
Japan is limited to maintain a self-defence force under the 1947 US-drafted pacifist constitution.
Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, said there was no change to its policy to focus purely on self defence and not to become a military power or pose a threat to other countries.
''Therefore, what President Roh Moo-hyun suggested is not right,'' Abe said.
REUTERS KD KP1553