WASHINGTON – Taking advantage of a perceived thaw in relations between Tokyo and Seoul, U.S. President Barack Obama met with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea on the fringes of the Nuclear Security Summit to promote greater trilateral unity to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
But at their meeting in Washington, the leaders of the three nations came up short on ideas about how to persuade Pyongyang to stop provocative acts like nuclear weapons tests and rocket launches.
“The United States has invested quite a bit of time and diplomatic energy,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in referring to President Barack Obama’s efforts to help his Japanese and South Korean counterparts mend fences.
Two years ago Obama brokered a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye on the sidelines of the previous round of the nuclear summit in the Netherlands. Improving ties between Tokyo and Seoul is indispensable to the United States as it focuses on challenges related to the rise of China, U.S. officials said.
The 2014 trilateral meeting in The Hague took place at a time when Abe and Park had yet to meet bilaterally since taking office in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Ties between Japan and South Korea were seriously strained at that time by disagreements over wartime issues, especially the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemism for the women and girls who were forced to provide sex in Japan’s military brothels.
On Thursday Obama held a second trilateral meeting with Abe and Park and said they were “united” in deterring and defending against North Korean provocations.
“America is coming together with its two Northeast Asian allies to publicly state their shared commitment to deal with North Korea,” Jeffrey Hornung, a Washington-based expert on Northeast Asian security, said.
It is “something that has long been challenged by outstanding historical issues between Seoul and Tokyo,” said Hornung, a fellow at Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
Japan and South Korea “have far more to gain when working in unison than when they are driven apart by differing interpretations of history,” he said.
After the latest trilateral talks with Obama, Abe and Park held their second one-on-one meeting, following their first in November.
While the meeting showed signs of a further thawing of ties between the United States’ two main Asian allies, Obama remains wary of further provocations by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.
North Korea fired ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan despite a fresh U.N. Security Council resolution in early March over its nuclear test in January and a rocket launch in February, which many in the West suspect was a test for long-range ballistic missile technology.
In his talks with President Xi Jinping on the fringes of the security summit, Obama confirmed cooperation with China, North Korea’s benefactor, in addressing the North’s nuclear ambitions. But it seems unlikely that Obama has found any effective way of keeping Pyongyang in check.