Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders from China and South Korea voiced a shared desire for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday but stopped short of declaring a clear-cut commitment to the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang due to conflicting positions.
The leaders, who met for the first time in more than two years as part of a trilateral summit in Tokyo, also advocated the promotion of free trade and globalization in what appeared to be a not-so-veiled dig at U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” protectionist agenda.
The Japan-China-South Korea summit coincides with a significant thaw in inter-Korean relations following last month’s historic meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a joint appearance with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Moon, Abe said it’s a shared position of the trio that “U.N. resolutions against North Korea must be fully implemented” to realize the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the regime’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Citing Kim’s surprise visit earlier this week to the Chinese city of Dalian for a meeting with President Xi Jinping, Abe said the trio “needs to cooperate with the global community so that emerging momentum for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia can lead to concrete actions on North Korea’s part.”
None of the three leaders went beyond their basic pledge of denuclearization, although Li congratulated Moon on his recent breakthrough talks with Kim and celebrated what he called “signs of a positive change” exemplified by the recent steps toward reconciliation between the two Koreas. Li also said he is “hopeful that Japan and North Korea will hold dialogue.”
The three-way talks precede Kim’s landmark summit with Trump, which is expected to take place in the coming weeks and would see Trump become the first sitting U.S. president ever to hold face-to-face dialogue with the leader of North Korea.
While Japan and South Korea uphold the position that maximum pressure must be maintained until Pyongyang fully denuclearizes, China is said to be more tolerant of an incremental lifting of sanctions against the regime.
After the summit meeting, a high-ranking Japanese official insisted the trio remains “in sync” over the denuclearization of North Korea, but didn’t offer a clear-cut assurance that Japan was able to bridge the gap with China regarding where they stand on the maximum pressure tactics.
“While China continues to sanction Pyongyang and press for denuclearization, it also is working to secure its own security interests on the peninsula through a degraded U.S. military presence,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.
Of the three summit participants, China’s Li was most strident in his condemnation of the protectionism trend spearheaded by Trump, calling for the acceleration of debate over a Japan-China-South Korea free trade agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Li also emphasized the need for stronger economic ties between the three countries throughout his speech, saying “(we) have far more mutual benefits than differences” to overcome and “We three are beneficiaries of free trade.”
“We will make continued efforts to promote economic globalization, solve our problems in a reasonable manner and espouse free trade,” he said. “Let’s fight protectionism.”
Li’s proclamation of a desire for closer ties with Japan and South Korea dovetails with Xi’s new foreign policy, summed up in the slogan “community of common destiny,” under which China has placed a growing emphasis on pursuing an improved, “win-win” relationship with its Asian neighbors.
Moon also seemed to back this view, going so far as to express his belief the three nations, bound by the important role they play in steering economic growth and ensuring peace in the region, will become “partners that can bring about a tectonic shift in world history.”
This year’s summit came at a time when Abe’s administration has been grappling with a spate of scandals that are chipping away at his popularity. These include allegations of cronyism and the mishandling of documents within multiple ministries.
“A constructive trilateral summit with some kind of tangible diplomatic outcome will be useful for Abe as well, given his tenuous position domestically and the perception that Abe’s Trump diplomacy is no longer bearing as much fruit,” said Corey Wallace, a Japan expert and security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat, Berlin.
In the news conference, Abe also said he was able to win “understanding and support” from both leaders on the “swift resolution” of the long-standing issue of Japanese abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. Their repatriation has been one of Abe’s top policy priorities since his return to power in 2012.
The three Asian powers have taken turns hosting the trilateral summit since 2008.
Staff writer Jesse Johnson contributed to this report.
Gist of trilateral summit discussion
Japan, China and South Korea will:
Cooperate toward the denuclearization of North Korea.
Fully enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
Cooperate on the economic front, including through infrastructure development in Southeast Asia.
Step up negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement and the wider Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Li and Moon:
Expressed understanding over Abe’s request for cooperation in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago.