SEOUL, South Korea — The top diplomats from South Korea, Japan and China met Sunday to discuss when to resume their leaders’ trilateral summit after a four-year hiatus and how to strengthen cooperation among the three Northeast Asian neighbors.
Closely linked economically and culturally with one another, the three countries together account for about 25% of the global gross domestic product. But efforts to boost trilateral cooperation have often hit a snag because of a mix of issues including historical disputes stemming from Japan’s wartime aggression and the strategic competition between China and the United States.
Meeting in the southeastern South Korean city of Busan, the foreign ministers of the three countries were to exchange opinions on preparations to restart the trilateral summit, ways to improve three-way cooperation and other regional and international issues, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
In September, senior officials of the three nations agreed to restart the trilateral summit “at the earliest convenient time.”
Since they held their first stand-alone, trilateral summit in 2008, the leaders of the three countries had been supposed to meet annually. But their summit has faced on-again, off-again suspensions and remains stalled since 2019.
Their relationships are intertwined with a slew of complicated, touchy issues.
South Korea and Japan are key US military allies, hosting a total of 80,000 American troops on their territories. Their recent push to beef up a trilateral security cooperation with the United States has angered China, which is extremely sensitive to any moves it perceives as seeking to contain its rise to dominance in Asia.
But some observers say that the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden struck a conciliatory tone in their first face-to-face meeting in a year earlier this month would provide Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing with diplomatic rooms to maneuver to find ways to revive three-way cooperation.
“As the international society is at a historic turning point as it faces major challenges and changes, we hope to discuss our strategic significance of Japan-China-South Korea cooperation,” Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa told reporters Friday.
Japanese officials said Sunday’s foreign ministers’ meeting would discuss North Korea’s recent spy satellite launch and the Russian-Ukraine war as well as a resumption of the trilateral summit. The officials said that no joint statement was expected after the meeting.
The three ministers held bilateral talks on the sidelines.
After her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday, Kamikawa said she renewed Japan’s demand that China remove its ban on seafood imports from Japan in response to Tokyo’s discharge of treated radioactive wastewater from its tsunami-hit nuclear power plant. Wang, for his part, said China opposed Japan’s “irresponsible action” of releasing the wastewater and called for an independent monitoring mechanism of the process, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Ties between South Korea and Japan deteriorated severely in past years due to issues originating from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. But their relations have warmed significantly in recent months as the two countries took a series of major steps to move beyond history wrangling and boost bilateral cooperation in the face of North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats and other shared challenges.
In a reminder of their difficult relations, however, a Seoul court earlier this week ordered Japan to financially compensate Koreans forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops during the colonial period. Kamikawa called the court verdict “extremely regrettable” and “absolutely unacceptable,” saying it violates international law and past bilateral agreements.
During their bilateral meeting Sunday, Kamikawa and her South Korean counterpart Park Jin discussed the court ruling, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement without elaborating. The ministry also said the two ministers strongly condemned the North’s latest spy satellite launch and agreed to work together to reinvigorate a three-way cooperation involving China.
Meeting Wang bilaterally, Park asked for China to play a constructive role in persuading North Korea to halt provocations and take steps toward denuclearization, according to South Korean media.
North Korea’s growing arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles poses a major security threat to South Korea and Japan. But China, North Korea’s last major ally and biggest source of aid, is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea and shipping clandestine assistance to the North to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat and continue to serve as a bulwark against US influences on the Korean Peninsula. (Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Japan and Simina Mistreanu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.)
Image credits: AP/Ahn Young-joon