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[Editorial] Progress at summit

Leaders of South Korea, China, Japan vow to seek cooperation amid N. Korea threat

By Korea Herald

Published : May 28, 2024 - 05:27

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South Korea, China and Japan held their first trilateral summit in over four years in Seoul on Monday amid expectations that the three countries would focus on exploring deeper cooperation in the economic and trade sectors.

But the focus of the three-way summit expanded to cover the threats of North Korea, which announced it would launch a spy satellite just hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sat down for the ninth trilateral summit meeting.

Experts earlier expected the leaders to discuss ways to strengthen ties in six specific areas including: economy and trade, sustainable development, health issues, science and technology, and people-to-people exchanges. But Pyongyang’s plan to launch a space rocket carrying a military reconnaissance satellite before June 4 refocused the attention of the three leaders.

With Pyongyang briefly overshadowing the rare summit, the leaders confirmed their commitment to seeking peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. “We reaffirmed that maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia serves our common interest and is our common responsibility," the joint declaration of the trilateral summit said.

Although the three leaders share the common principles, China took a different tone regarding North Korea’s saber-rattling.

“All launches using ballistic missile technology directly violate UN Security Council resolutions, and undermine regional and global peace and stability,” Yoon said at a joint press briefing, adding that the international community must “respond firmly” against Pyongyang. Kishida expressed nearly the same concern: “If it proceeds, it will be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. We strongly urge North Korea to cease this activity.”

But Li avoided directly mentioning North Korea and its prospective satellite launch, and just called for “restraint,” reflecting Beijing’s longstanding role as a major ally of Pyongyang. At the start of the meeting, Li also stressed China’s opposition against the formation of blocs and camps, referring to the strengthened alliance between South Korea, Japan and the US.

Despite the close economic and cultural ties, the three countries are locked in a complex web of conflicting interests around North Korea, the US-China trade war, China’s assertiveness over Taiwan and Japan’s history of colonial occupation and wartime aggression.

Expectations for the substantial outcome of the summit, therefore, were relatively low. Experts said that just restarting the top-level annual meeting to beef up cooperative ties is a positive signal for the three countries.

That the first trilateral summit took place since December 2019 illustrates the growing need for the three neighboring countries to improve their relations. China is the biggest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan, and its ongoing trade clashes with the US could pose threats to the two countries faced with more tariff barriers.

Against this backdrop, Li said China wants to cooperate with South Korea and Japan on economic issues, including supply chains, and restart talks on a three-way free trade deal, a welcome move that will serve the interests of the countries involved. It is also meaningful that the three countries agreed to resume the annual three-way summit.

Aside from the trilateral summit, bilateral talks on Sunday brought about some results. In a meeting on Sunday between Yoon and Li, South Korea and China agreed to establish a 2+2 dialogue consultative body between the Foreign and Defense Ministries and will hold its meeting in mid-June.

The resumption of the diplomacy and security channel came after the two nations halted such meeting in 2016 when Korea and China clashed over the deployment of the THAAD missile system.

Also on Sunday, Yoon talked with Kishida over a recent dispute involving Korea’s biggest portal Naver and its Line service, which is the most popular messaging app in Japan. The two leaders agreed to communicate closely with each other to block the dispute from undermining bilateral ties.

As the Seoul meeting showed, the trilateral summit has its limitations due to its tight schedule and format. But it should continue since it offers an important venue for the leaders to seek much-needed cooperation in the region.