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The relevance of Japan-South Korea-China trilateral summit

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The relevance of Japan-South Korea-China trilateral summit

The common viewpoint between the countries was to explore the process of denuclearising North Korea

Amid the euphoria generated first by the summit meeting between South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, the focus has now shifted to another bigger event to take place on June 12 when US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim shall have their first ever meeting in the neutral venue of Singapore. One needs to wait and watch if either of the two leaders follow Mark Twain’s maxim of defining the principle of diplomacy that explains give one and take ten with the objective of achieving the larger goal of denuclearisation of North Korea.

While we wait for the big event, what the region has seen a flurry of back channel diplomacy in which senior diplomats and ministers have visited each other’s countries to prepare the ground so that some tangible outcome is arrived. While each of these stakeholders has their own interests, the common thread that binds them all is denuclearisation of North Korea. In this whole process, what has been underplayed or inadequately reported is the trilateral summit between the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea hosted by Japan whose significance is no less important in defining a path for peace.

During the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to prepare for the Trump-Kim summit, he was successful to secure the release of the three American-Korean citizens who were detained by North Korea for the past one year. This not only raised hope for some tangible outcome on June 12 summit but also raises hope in Japan that its citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s would also be able to return to their home in Japan.

The decision on the location and the date was shrouded in mystery for quite some time. Initially planned to take place in May, the summit was postponed for July 12, and several locations such as Panmunjom, Ulaanbaatar, Sweden, and Vladivostok or somewhere in international waters were named, until both sides ultimately settling for the neutral city-state of Singapore. What matters is that the meeting may end up being the most important North Korea-related event of the year as both sides are euphoric about a possible agreement on North Korea’s nuclear programme but its success is by no means guaranteed. Trump seems confident that it could be a special moment for world peace. 

In the background of this, how relevant was the trilateral meeting hosted by Japan that ended last week? As said, the common viewpoint between the three countries was to explore the process of denuclearising North Korea. Dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, thereby build peace and stability in the East Asian region demanded cooperation between Japan, China and South Korea to address these challenges. Using this opportunity, Abe Shinzo of Japan, Li Keqiang of China and Moon Jae-in of South Korea confirmed the policy of expanding cooperation in a wide range of fields, including trade, culture and the environment. This was for the first time that Li and Moon visited Japan since their inaugurations. Li’s Japan travel was the first by a Chinese premier in seven years and Moon was the first South Korean president to set foot on Japanese soil for the trilateral summit.

Though the trilateral is an annual event alternating between the three capitals, this time it was held after two and a half years. The three countries have been hosting in turn the annual meeting since 2008, but they were occasionally postponed due to a chill in Japan’s relations with its two neighbours over history and territorial disputes as well as political turmoil in South Korea.The previous one was held in Seoul in November 2015 and the present one was the seventh of its kind.In view of the common challenges they face, it is desirable that this three-way summit should take place on a regular basis so that it can serve as the foundation for trilateral cooperation. This time, with Japan as the chair, the three leaders agreed to cooperate toward the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In view of this, the three leaders applauded the Panmunjom Declaration that sets the stage for achieving bigger goals on June 12. As mentioned, for Abe resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea is a major priority and he was successful in obtaining an understanding from Li and Moon on this.

Coming immediately after intensification of diplomatic negotiations among relevant countries, this trilateral initiative adds further impetus to the negotiation process. In this whole process, Beijing is going to remain as the key player. This was demonstrated by Kim’s second secret visit to Beijing to meet with Xi in Dalian in Liaoning Province to discuss prior to his summit with Trump. It was rather unusual for Kim who never left North Korea since taking power after his father’s death in 2011 to make two successive visits to China in such a short span of time, demonstrating that Kim wanted to secure Beijing’s backing in his negotiations with Trump.

What actually transpired during the Kim-Xi talks cannot be conclusively known. But what one can decipher from the newspaper reports is that Kim made his standpoint clear that Washington should take “phased and synchronized measures” and not rush to any hasty decision. Based on Kim’s such a request, Xi is reported to have spoken with Trump over phone asking him to take a flexible response. Now it transpires that North Korea’s stance of hoping to get a phased removal of sanctions in return for denuclearization, and China’s posture of supporting North Korea’s stance, is clear.

The ground reality is, however, different. Washington is not expected to forget Pyongyang broke its promises on nuclear agreements with the US in the past and this time it shall be extra careful in negotiating with Pyongyang. Therefore, the US is unlikely to shift positions from its stated demand that pressure on North Korea shall continue till the procedures for nuclear dismantlement by North Korea is completed. Japan too supports such a position and both Japan and the US expect should follow such a step.

Though the trilateral talks produced agreement in a wide range of areas, including cooperation to ensure the complete denuclearisation of North Korea and promoting free trade, it also highlighted divided stances on certain issues. In the summit, it emerged that while Japan favours maintaining pressure on Pyongyang, China and South Korea seek a more conciliatory path. The different positions taken by the three countries surfaced when during a joint press conference after the talks, Abe outlined his position on North Korea’s denuclearisation issue by demanding concrete actions by Pyongyang, and sought support of Moon and Xi on the issue of Japanese national abducted by North Korea.

Though there seemed to be agreement by the three leaders on North Korea’s denuclearization issue where all of them desired to see it becoming a reality, there had been some difficulty ironing out the wording used in the joint statement issued after the meeting. Japan wanted the text to include the expression “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization”, while China and South Korea pushed back against this strict demand due to concern it could pour cold water on the mood for dialogue with North Korea. In the end, all three sides settled on “complete denuclearisation”.

There were more differences. This referred to how each of the nations interpreted what ‘denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’ meant. To Japan, South Korea and other nations, this implied denuclearising North Korea, whereas for North Korea and China, the concept also assumed South Korea, which is protected by the US nuclear umbrella. For Japan and the US, “concrete actions” by North Korea towards denuclearisation would include North Korea shipping its plutonium to another country, opening up all its nuclear fuel processing and uranium. The short-term goals include having North Korea abandon its nuclear and missile programs. Japan expects that the process of denuclearisation be possible by the summer of 2020 when the next US presidential election campaign shall be kicked up. It is likely therefore that back channel negotiation shall continue till the last moment of Kim-Trump summit on the topic of denuclearisation and what “rewards” Pyongyang would receive for surrendering its nuclear program. The US has reportedly offered economic incentives if North Korea complies with the demands. 

The sticking point however is expected not be removed so soon. Japan and the US are putting tough conditions on North Korea, while China and South Korea seem to have taken a soften position to achieve the desirable outcome of denuclearisation. While China has advocated a gradual easing of sanctions in step with progress in scuttling North Korea’s nuclear program, including “enticements” at an early stage, South Korea is keen that the forthcoming Kim-Trump summit meeting does not collapse and therefore strongly leaning toward a policy of reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Notwithstanding some differences between the three countries in their approach to deal with North Korea, there seems to have emerged consensus on the larger goal of achieving North Korea’s denuclearisation. Seen from this perspective, the trilateral cooperation shall help establish peace and prosperity, extending beyond the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia. In a direct message to Kim, Abe mentioned in the press conference that if North Korea follows the right path, Japan will “settle the unfortunate past and aim to normalize diplomatic relations based on the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration”.

The writer, a former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, was until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan




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