The foreign ministers of Japan, China, and South Korea on Wednesday condemned the firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) by North Korea, in a rare gesture of accord after a spate of sharp tensions.
They also pledged to try to bring their leaders together for a trilateral summit by the end of the year, a time frame that suggests some of the worst discord may be in the past.
But they stopped short of issuing a joint statement following the meeting. The Japanese side shrugged that off, saying it would have wasted valuable discussion time to pick over the wording.
Meanwhile, the visit underscored progress in ties between Tokyo and Beijing as it was the first visit to Japan by China’s foreign minister since President Xi Jinping took power.
While the three envoys discussed elements of trilateral cooperation, they spent much of the time focusing on North Korea’s missile and nuclear ambitions. The SLBM launch took place shortly before their meeting kicked off.
Although the countries have subtly different attitudes toward North Korea, they managed to deliver the message that they should take a joint lead in global efforts to curb the North’s excesses and hold it to a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted in March. That agreement followed a nuclear blast the North dubbed a hydrogen bomb test and a rocket launch it called a satellite space shot.
“There are various issues among the three countries, but we have to overcome that with our political wisdom,” Kishida told a joint news conference.
It was the first time in five years that Japan has hosted the trilateral meeting. The format began in 2007 and has been held roughly every two to three years.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byun-se and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi echoed Kishida’s remarks.
China is the North’s biggest economic partner.
Wang said: “Despite the issues the three countries have, we have an important responsibility for the peace and stability of the region. We would like to enhance our cooperation by overcoming the difficulties.”
The trilateral talks came at a time of tension between Japan and China over hundreds of Chinese fishing boats and dozens of government patrol ships in and around Japanese territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands. The isles are administered by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan, which call the islands Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.
Bilateral relations between China and South Korea have been on the rocks since Seoul invited the U.S. to set up a high-altitude missile interceptor battery on South Korean soil. Washington and Seoul call the deployment a measure against North Korean missiles, while Beijing believes the unit threatens its national security.
The three diplomats agreed to work toward the success of a Group of 20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou early next month.
Meanwhile, Japan brought up thorny issues during bilateral talks on the meeting’s sidelines.
Kishida lodged a protest with Wang over China’s unilateral actions in the East China Sea at a time when its vessels routinely enter Japanese waters.
Kishida said if the situation improves, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be able to sit down with Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting.
Wang said unforeseeable incidents need to be prevented through dialogue, but he did not directly respond to Kishida’s proposal of talks at the summit.
Wang is known for his expertise on Japan-related matters not least because he once served as ambassador to Tokyo.
Upon arrival in Japan on Tuesday, he accused the government of overreacting regarding events in the East China Sea.
“I hope to pave the way for better bilateral relations by maintaining communications at the diplomatic level,” Kishida said after the bilateral talks.
Meanwhile, bilateral ties between Tokyo and Seoul have improved since they concluded an accord in December over the issue of the so-called comfort women, who were forced to provide sex at Imperial Japanese wartime military brothels.
Just before the meeting began, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved the disbursement of ¥1 billion to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a fund set up in Seoul last month to help the former comfort women and their families with medical and social care.
The foreign ministry said some 100 million won (roughly ¥9 million) will be paid to the 46 surviving former comfort women and about 20 million won (nearly ¥2 million) will be disbursed to the families of those that have already died.
“With the completion of the fund transfer, Japan will have fulfilled its responsibility based on the agreement,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. “We would like the Korean side to make efforts to solve the issue of the comfort women statue based on the agreement.”
Kishida told Yun about the transfer during the bilateral meeting and called on Yun to remove the statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Yun pledged to work toward it.
Still, it remains unclear how the South Korean side will tackle the problem as the agreement only says Seoul will “strive to solve” it and does not mandate the statue’s removal.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.