SAN FRANCISCO – The top diplomats of Japan, the United States and South Korea urged North Korea on Tuesday to refrain from military provocations and continue denuclearization talks, ruling out any easing of crushing economic sanctions without progress in the stalled negotiations.
But in comments later the same day that could indicate a fracture in the three nations’ supposedly united stance against the North, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha appeared to temper her country’s agreement on not easing sanctions, saying that inter-Korean cooperation doesn’t necessarily have to wait for the talks to progress.
“Our basic stance is that North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue complement each other in a virtuous cycle,” she told reporters after meeting Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in East Palo Alto, just outside San Francisco, two weeks after a deadline set by Pyongyang for progress by the end of 2019.
Kang said that with U.S.-North Korea talks in a stalemate, it was essential to revive “North Korea’s engagement momentum” through inter-Korean talks.
Kang’s remarks brought her closer in line with a New Year’s speech by South Korean President Moon Jae-in a day earlier in Seoul, in which he said he could seek exemptions of U.N. sanctions to bring about improved inter-Korean relations. Moon has previously made similar comments, in hope such a move would help restart the deadlocked nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, despite concern elsewhere that any lifting of sanctions could undermine U.S.-led efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eun-han told a briefing Wednesday that South Korea was actively considering the start of “individual tours” to North Korea if guarantees of tourist safety can be secured from Pyongyang.
“We understand individual tours are not bounded by the U.N. sanctions,” he said.
“There are issues regarding inter-Korean cooperation that need discussions between South Korea and the United States, but also areas … South Korea can proceed with independently,” he added.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to unveil a “new strategic weapon” — possibly a new intercontinental ballistic missile — Pyongyang has refrained from making major provocative moves in recent months.
Its most recent missile test was in October, when it fired what it said was a new type of submarine-launched missile into the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang also conducted on two occasions in December what it described as a “crucial” experiment at a rocket launch site, which experts believe involved testing a liquid-fuel engine for a long-range ballistic missile.
In the meeting Tuesday, the three ministers had “emphasized the importance of the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world,” the U.S. State Department said, using an acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
In a separate meeting the same day in East Palo Alto, Motegi and Pompeo agreed to step up diplomatic efforts to avoid an escalation in tensions in the Middle East amid a standoff between the United States and Iran.
“We share the goal with the United States that we don’t recognize Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, and that we promote regional peace and stability,” Motegi told journalists after the talks.
Motegi said he voiced “deep concern” to Pompeo about heightened tensions in the Middle East, a region that provides a third of the world’s oil.
Hostilities between Washington and Tehran, considered foes since just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, sharply escalated after a top Iranian commander was killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this month.
The slaying of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, prompted Iran to fire more than a dozen missiles at Iraqi military bases hosting American troops.
U.S. President Donald Trump responded by announcing new economic sanctions on Iran but said he does not want to use force, easing fears of an immediate wider conflict.
Motegi said he welcomed the restraint shown by the United States, and that he voiced hope that all involved parties would make efforts to reach a diplomatic solution.
Japan, a key American ally that also traditionally has friendly ties with Iran, has sought to play a mediator role in an effort to bring stability back to a region that provides roughly 90 percent of its oil.
The meetings came days ahead of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty, which provides for American troops to be stationed in Japan and defend the country from attack.
Separately in Washington, Defense Minister Taro Kono met with his U.S. counterpart, Mark Esper, to discuss Japan’s dispatch of a warship and patrol planes to the Middle East on an intelligence-gathering mission that will also aim to protect commercial shipping.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force is conducting the mission separate from a U.S.-led coalition operating near the Strait of Hormuz — an effort that was launched following attacks on tankers and Saudi oil facilities that Washington blamed on Tehran.
At a joint news conference, Esper welcomed Japan’s efforts and added, “We will continue to share information and cooperate on operations in the Middle East, as we work to promote freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce.”
Japan opted not to participate in “Operation Sentinel,” as the U.S. initiative is called, out of concern doing so would hurt its relationship with Iran.
Tensions in the region have been running high following Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw the United States from a landmark nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers. Tehran has since gradually abandoned its commitments to curb uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned from a tour of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, on Wednesday, has strived to de-escalate the situation. His visit to Iran in June was the first by a Japanese leader since 1978.
Meanwhile, Motegi and Kang also held separate talks in an effort to resolve a diplomatic feud between their countries over wartime compensation and trade policy.
While Washington has looked to maintain cooperation in order to deal with potential attacks, relations between its top allies in Asia have been strained since late 2018 when South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for forced labor during the 1910-1945 period of colonial rule.
The court rulings drew a strong backlash from Japan, which argues that South Korea relinquished all rights to wartime claims in a bilateral agreement signed when the countries normalized ties in 1965.
The Moon administration says that while it still respects the agreement, it cannot overturn the decision of another branch of government.
Motegi said he repeated calls for South Korea to address the issue, though Kang did not offer any concrete solutions in the meeting. The two agreed to continue dialogue, he said.
In an annual New Year’s news conference in Seoul on Tuesday, Moon said that Japan should present its own solutions to the issue, adding that it can be solved if the two countries work together and focus on obtaining the consensus of the victims.
The dispute escalated in July 2019 when Abe’s government announced tighter regulations on key exports to South Korea.
Citing national security concerns, Japan revoked South Korea’s preferential status for shipments of some chemicals used to manufacture semiconductors and display panels which allowed them to be sent with less red tape, and later dropped the country from a “whitelist” of trusted trade partners.
Relations have shown signs of improvement in recent months after Seoul suspended its decision to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, and as trade officials from the countries have begun talks.