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Trade not North Korea nukes on agenda for China, S Korea, Japan talks

By AFP

May 25, 2024 10:44 AM


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South Korea, Japan and China will likely skip tricky geopolitics and tackle trade, supply chain stability and visa-free tourism instead as they convene in Seoul for their first summit in five years.

President Yoon Suk Yeol will meet Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the South Korean capital on Monday, with a slew of bilateral meetings scheduled the day before.

Despite North Korea conducting ever-more advanced weapons tests and China staging military drills around Taiwan, experts expect the summit to ignore security issues and seek common ground for easy diplomatic wins.

It will be important for all sides to show "they are committed to maintaining the momentum for cooperation", Asan Institute research fellow Lee Dong-gyu told AFP.

The problem is "the political positions of the three countries differ significantly", he said, pointing to increasingly close ties that Seoul and Tokyo have with China's arch-rival Washington.

The three countries have starkly "divergent stances" on key issues, including Pyongyang's nuclear threats and growing ties with Russia, making it almost impossible to form a consensus, Lee said.

As a result, and to ensure the trilateral meeting is a success, "these topics would not be addressed and they would rather vaguely talk about and emphasise the cooperation of the three countries", he said.

- 'Squeezing out' cooperation -

Yoon, who took office in 2022, has sought to bury the historical hatchet with former colonial power Japan in the face of rising threats from the nuclear-armed North.

China is North Korea's largest trading partner and a key diplomatic ally, and it has previously resisted condemning Pyongyang for weapons testing, instead criticising joint US-South Korea drills.

It is likely that Beijing will once again resist pressure from Tokyo and Seoul to do more to rein in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, experts say.

"Nothing substantial will come out of the summit in terms of security," Daisuke Kawai, deputy director of the University of Tokyo's economic security research programme, told AFP.

But the thaw in Seoul-Tokyo ties has left China "increasingly viewing the two governments as united in their measures against Beijing", he said, and a key motivation for the meeting would be to "soften that dynamic and tension".

Seoul and Tokyo are "worried about a further escalation of military tensions in East Asia, especially with a Taiwan crisis in mind", he said, meaning their relationship with Beijing would be crucial.

So the leaders will seek topics they can all agree on, such as cooperation on regional disaster response and boosting trade, Kawai said.

Japan and China were also "especially keen" to resume visa-free trips, he said, and are "squeezing out possible ways to cooperate".

- Difficult to resolve -

An official from Seoul's presidential office said North Korea-related issues "are difficult to resolve cleanly and quickly in a short time", so the summit will focus more on economic cooperation.

"A joint declaration is currently being discussed," he said, adding that Seoul would try to include security issues "to a certain extent".

Kishida's administration has long been eager for a top-level meeting with Kim, something Pyongyang has rebuffed due largely to tensions over the kidnapping of Japanese people in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is unlikely to be a breakthrough on the issue even if Tokyo brings it up, said Kang Jun-young, a Chinese studies professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"China is focused on maintaining its diplomatic relationship with North Korea and is likely to argue that the abductee issue is a bilateral problem," Kang said.

One area where Seoul and Tokyo may find themselves at odds is a business dispute over ownership of the popular messaging app LINE, developed by South Korea's Naver and which is now under pressure from Tokyo to sell its controlling share in Japan.

"This issue, arguably more so than historical issues, has sparked a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea," Kim Dae-jong, a professor of business administration at Sejong University in Seoul, told AFP.

Being tough on LINE ownership might help Kishida at home but "it could be detrimental in the long run if relations with South Korea -- a key ally of the United States and a popular tourist destination for Japanese people -- deteriorate," he said.


AFP


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