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S Korea, Japan, China fail to set summit date, condemn N Korea

South Korea, Japan, and China have not only failed to agree on a date for a landmark trilateral summit of their leaders, but also in jointly condemning North Korea’s latest illegal satellite launch, exposing the widening gaps in reinvigorating that three-party cooperation.

The foreign ministers of the three nations did not hold a joint press conference on Sunday, after their first ministerial talks in four years – a rare occurrence that could signify the differing diplomatic stances among these key Asian geopolitical entities.

The countries have reaffirmed their agreement to hold the summit, the apex of their cooperative framework, at the earliest mutually convenient time,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin said in a solo briefing after the trilateral meeting with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Yoko Kamikawa and Wang Yi in the South’s port city of Busan.

A South Korean government source, who asked for anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, told Radio Free Asia that the joint press conference did not take place as Wang had pre-arranged plans. The person did not elaborate.

According to a separate South Korean government official who spoke to RFA prior to the meeting, the primary goal of the ministerial meeting was to set a date for the trilateral summit. The last trilateral summit took place in 2019 in Chengdu, China.

“Efforts will be made to ensure that the summit takes place soon,” Park said, without specifying an exact date. The South Korean minister mentioned his proposal for the three countries to reactivate their intergovernmental mechanism as a means to fortify the framework of trilateral cooperation. However, he did not clarify whether this proposal was agreed upon by all parties.

Whether China would want to continue the trilateral summit platform has become questionable as its emergence as a global power has relatively lessened its focus in the region. The increasing collaboration of South Korea and Japan under the trilateral framework with the United States also has been a source of discomfort for Beijing.

In fact, with South Korea’s current conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration, Seoul has been more vocal in criticizing China on the international stage – with concerns ranging from Beijing’s decision to repatriate North Korean defectors back to the Kim Jong Un regime to China’s coercive behavior towards the democratically self-governed island of Taiwan.

North Korea

The three ministers also failed to issue a joint statement in condemning North Korea’s latest provocation, a departure from previous trilateral foreign ministers’ meetings which usually included a consensus on security issues in the Korean peninsula.

“I emphasized that North Korea’s recent so-called military reconnaissance satellite launch, along with its ballistic missile launches and nuclear development, are among the greatest threats to peace and security in the region,” Park said during his solo briefing, without saying what has been agreed with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts.  

North Korea launched a satellite last Tuesday, despite international warnings. Rocket technology can be used for both launching satellites and missiles. For that reason, the U.N. bans North Korea from launching a ballistic rocket, even if it claims to be a satellite launch.

The lack of a joint statement is a sharp contrast with the trilateral foreign minister meeting among the U.S., South Korea and Japan in San Francisco, in which the three called the military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow, including Russia’s technological aid to help the North Korean launch,  a “serious threat to international peace and stability.”

Unlike previous occasions, when China’s foreign ministry often expressed its regrets, Beijing refrained from issuing a public criticism of North Korea’s latest launch, as the strategic value of Pyongyang has been raised due to intensifying U.S.-China relations.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Saturday claimed that its satellite passed over Hawaii and observed “a naval base in the Pearl Harbor, the Hickam air-force base in Honolulu,” as well as South Korea’s Busan.