• Bloomberg, Kyodo

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A U.S. effort to show unity between two of its closest allies backfired after Japanese and South Korean officials walked out and left the No. 2 American diplomat to face reporters on her own.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was forced to give a solo news conference Wednesday in Washington following three-way talks with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Sherman described the discussions on issues including Chinese pressure on Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as “very constructive,” and attempted to play down the dust-up.

“There are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved, and one of those differences, which is unrelated to today’s meeting, has led to the change in format for today’s press availability,” she told reporters.

In Tokyo on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan decided to pull out of what was supposed to be a three-way news conference over a row with Seoul about a pair of South Korea-held islets claimed by Japan, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.

The latest development came after the head of South Korea’s police on Tuesday visited the islands in the Sea of Japan.

South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said he decided not to take part in the briefing out of concern the dispute would overshadow other issues. “If we held a joint press conference, Japanese media would have asked questions related to the visit, and the two sides would have to rebut one another’s position on Dokdo. We were worried about that,” Choi told reporters in Washington.

The State Department had been planning a joint news conference with Sherman, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori and Choi following their trilateral meeting, which lasted for more than three hours.

The latest development came after months of efforts by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to strengthen cooperation between Japan and South Korea in the face of North Korean nuclear threats and China’s rise.

The joint news conference was apparently a chance to showcase the enhanced ties between the three countries.

Japanese Foreign Ministry sources said the Takeshima issue was not discussed during the trilateral meeting. But the government decided that it was “not appropriate” to hold a joint news conference when Tokyo was protesting over the South Korean police chief’s visit to Takeshima.

Long-simmering tensions between Japan and South Korea have worsened in recent years, with disputes dating back to Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula hurting trade and security ties between the two U.S. allies. The rights to Takeshima and its surrounding resources, which are controlled by South Korea, are viewed as symbolically significant by both countries.

According to a news release issued by the department, the three officials reaffirmed that trilateral cooperation “is essential to tackling the most pressing challenges” in the region and across the globe, while sharing a commitment to maintaining a rules-based international order amid China’s growing assertiveness.

Sherman also highlighted the close trilateral coordination on North Korea’s denuclearization and their intent to address the threat posed by the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, according to the news release.

The deputy secretary of state said the United States will continue discussions to explore the best way forward to ensure Pyongyang’s denuclearization, with South Korea proposing the declaration of a formal end to the Korean War in an effort to revive dialogue with North Korea.

“On (the issue of) end of war… we are having good consultations amongst us and with other allies and partners and we will continue to do so,” Sherman said.

The United States and North Korea remain technically in a state of war as the 1950-53 Korean War — in which U.S.-led U.N. forces fought alongside the South against the North, which was backed by China and the Soviet Union — ended in a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.

North Korea has called for the United States to abandon its “hostile policies.” A security guarantee is seen as a prerequisite for North Korea to give up its nuclear arms.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September that he will seek to declare a formal end to the Korean War, naming China as a potential partner along with the two Koreas and the United States.

But diplomatic sources have previously said that Tokyo is reluctant to support the idea, believing it would only create a conciliatory mood without clear prospects that Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear weapons or resolve the issue of its past abductions of Japanese nationals.

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