The Korean Football Association (KFA) has defended the country's 'Red Devils' supporters group for unfurling a politically-charged banner at Sunday's East Asian Cup game against Japan and said Japanese fans had incited trouble by raising the 'rising sun' flag.
Korean fans unfurled a massive banner at Jamsil Stadium that read: 'A nation that forgets its history has no future' in an apparent reference to what many South Koreans see as Japan's unwillingness to acknowledge its wartime and colonial excesses.
The Japanese Football Association lodged a complaint over Sunday's incident, which Tokyo's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said was "extremely regrettable."
Hakubun Shimomura, Japan's minister for sport, was quoted by Kyodo News as saying: "It calls into question the nature of the people in the country."
However, the KFA said Japanese fans had to shoulder some of the blame.
"The rising sun flag is a reminder of South Korea's painful history," the KFA said in a statement to the East Asian Football Federation on Wednesday.
"This all started because Japanese supporters raised the flag right after the game started, which inflamed the South Korean supporters."
The rising sun flag, with 16 rays extending from a red sun on a white background, is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime militarism.
Many South Koreans harbour bitter memories about Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule, though Tokyo says it has settled all its obligations and has apologised.
The KFA said it was "extremely disappointing that even senior members of the Japanese government denounced South Korea."
"They should stop criticising only what South Korea did while ignoring the fact that the Japanese supporters raised a large rising sun flag in the centre of South Korea's capital."
The KFA had initially persuaded the Red Devils to remove the banner before the game, but when Japanese fans raised the rising sun flag Korean supporters responded by bringing back their sign, which stretched across several sections of the upper deck behind one of the goals.
The KFA intervened again to remove the banner, which prompted a second-half 'cheering boycott' by the Red Devils, who remained silent for the rest of the game.
Japan won the match 2-1 to clinch the tournament, which also featured Australia and China.
"The KFA tried its best to resolve the matter immediately after it occurred and even though we received intense protests from the Red Devils, we tried to protect the purity of soccer," it said in the statement.
The rising sun flag also provoked anger from the Red Devils in April when Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds hosted South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in an Asian Champions League match.
The Red Devils said at the time that if they did not receive an apology, the safety of Japanese fans could not be guaranteed during the East Asian Cup.
The two countries were also at the centre of a diplomatic row at the 2012 London Olympics when a South Korean player held up a sign referring to a territorial dispute while celebrating his team's win over Japan in the bronze medal game in August.
Park Jong-woo, who was handed a sign that read "Dokdo is our territory" by a fan, was forced to skip the medal ceremony and was later banned by soccer's governing body FIFA for two games and fined 3,500 Swiss francs ($3,800).