Shaky resolve on North Korea

The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea, meeting in Beijing on Sunday, agreed to strengthen cooperation toward preventing a nuclear explosion test by North Korea and to launch talks this year on a trilateral free trade deal. But their joint statement, issued one day late, failed to mention North Korea.

The three countries’ cooperation on North Korea could be shaky. China’s remark on the Senkaku Islands also underlines the importance of Japan strengthening its guard to protect its sovereignty over the islands in the East China Sea.

The meeting was held amid reports that North Korea is preparing for its third nuclear explosion test, following its failed attempt to launch a satellite April 13 — an act that violated the 2009 U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting North Korea from carrying out any launch using ballistic missile technology.

Both Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak stressed the importance of making further efforts to prevent another provocative act by North Korea. But Chinese Premier Wen Jiapao said it is important to ease tensions by showing “good will” with “perseverance” and thus go back to “dialogue and negotiations.” Apparently China, an ally of North Korea, does not want to antagonize North Korea.

In the joint statement, Japan and South Korea made a concession to China on North Korea. It called for cooperation only in the field of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Japan and South Korea face the difficult task of securing China’s commitment to help resolve the North Korea issue.

In a bilateral meeting with Mr. Noda, Mr. Wen urged him to respect “China’s core interests and major concerns.” He apparently had in mind the Japanese-ruled Senkaku Islands and an ethnic issue — the opening of the general assembly of the World Uyghur Congress in Tokyo on Monday. Japan should not budge over the Senkaku Islands. It should approach the issue in a nonprovocative way but with strong determination.

The circumstances around the three countries’ agreement to launch negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement are complex. China and South Korea on Monday held their first meeting on their bilateral FTA, and Japan is trying to join the Transpacific Partnership free trade zone. Japan should not forget the basics — to explain to its people what it aims to achieve and what interests it wants to protect at any cost.