BEIJING – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked Japan and South Korea on Wednesday to seek a solution to their differences “through dialogue,” amid concern that worsening relations between Tokyo and Seoul may threaten regional economic stability.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono also called on Beijing and Seoul to bolster trilateral cooperation even when respective bilateral ties sour, but his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, lambasted Tokyo’s moves to tighten export controls against her country.
“While maintaining a constructive attitude, it is important (for Japan and South Korea) to find an appropriate solution through dialogue,” Wang said at the outset of a foreign ministerial gathering of the three nations in Beijing.
“Two countries sometimes face various difficulties respectively,” said Kono, “but even under such circumstances, Japan, China and South Korea should work together trilaterally.”
A Japanese government official briefing reporters later in the day quoted Kono as telling Wang and Kang that the foreign ministers “should refrain” from raising issues related to bilateral relations during the trilateral meeting.
However, Kang told Kono and Wang that South Korea hopes the three countries will stick to “free and fair” trade for prosperity in the region, in an apparent jab at Japan, underscoring that strains between Tokyo and Seoul are unlikely to wane soon.
“It is important to eliminate unilateral and arbitrary trade retaliatory steps and remove uncertainties” in East Asia, she said at a joint news appearance following the talks. She did not single out Japan.
The Japanese official said Wang did not make comments aimed at mediating between Tokyo and Seoul.
Kono and Kang met separately the same day, but were unable to make any significant progress in settling the feud between their countries over wartime history and trade, although they did agree to maintain an open line of dialogue to work toward a detente.
“Even in such a difficult situation, I think we can work toward a solution by having these very close discussions,” Kono said after his meeting with Kang.
Kono said he expressed concern to Kang over growing anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea, and asked for the safety of Japanese nationals to be ensured.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have deteriorated recently to their worst state since the normalization of ties in 1965, over Japan’s tightening of export controls in the wake of a string of South Korean court rulings last year ordering compensation for wartime forced labor.
At a three-way meeting in Bangkok earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to make efforts to ease their dispute, but no resolution appears close.
Although Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul agreed Wednesday to accelerate negotiations to reach regional free trade agreements, Japan-South Korea trade discord does make it more difficult for them to be realized, foreign affairs experts said.
China has voiced eagerness to expand trade cooperation with its neighbors, as the world’s second-biggest economy has been slowing down due largely to an intensifying trade war with the United States.
At their meeting, meanwhile, the foreign ministers from the three East Asian nations failed to set a date for an annual summit of their leaders, which had been slated for later this year in China.
The summit, held on a rotating basis by Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, has occasionally been suspended against the backdrop of a chill in Japan’s relations with its two neighbors over historical and territorial disputes, as well as political turmoil in South Korea.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have shown little sign of making concessions in the escalating economic and political row between their two countries.
In 2018, South Korea’s top court ruled that Japanese companies must compensate people who claimed they were victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
Abe’s government has argued that the decisions go against a 1965 bilateral agreement that settled the compensation issue “finally and completely,” criticizing Moon’s administration for violating an international treaty.
Japan has strengthened export controls on South Korea since last month, citing security concerns. Seoul has insisted that the measures are aimed at taking reprisals against the court rulings, triggering a tit-for-tat trade dispute between the two countries.
Separately on Wednesday, South Korea said it will double the amount of samples and frequency of tests in inspections for radioactive substances conducted on some processed foods and agricultural products from Japan.
The move by the South Korean government tightens measures implemented following the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, which was triggered by a powerful earthquake and tsunami.
However, the decision, announced by the Food and Drug Safety Ministry, appears to be part of countermeasures to Tokyo’s tightening of export controls, and follows a similar measure by South Korea last week targeting recycling waste products from Japan.
Items that in the past tested positive for trace amounts of radiation and were subsequently sent back to Japan are covered by the measure. Included among them are seafood, blueberries, coffee, food additives and processed foods such as chocolate.
Kono, Wang and Kang met at a resort in the Chinese capital at a time when North Korea’s consecutive test-firings of new weapons have added to uncertainties in the regional security situation.
The foreign ministers confirmed that the three nations will work in tandem to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea.
North Korea has repeatedly launched projectiles, including what Tokyo and Seoul have suspected to be short-range ballistic missiles, off its east coast since July 25, in protest of a South Korea-U.S. joint military drill that took place from Aug. 5 through Tuesday.
As China and South Korea have expressed willingness to bolster economic relations with the North, Kono is eager to urge Beijing and Seoul to fully implement U.N. sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang, a Japanese government source said.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from using ballistic technology.
The meeting between the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea is their first since August 2016 when they met in Tokyo. The last trilateral summit was held in Tokyo in May 2018.