Japan, China and South Korea should cooperate despite soured ties, Taro Kono says in Beijing

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono called on China and South Korea to bolster trilateral cooperation even when respective bilateral relations worsen, amid escalating tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also asked Tokyo and Seoul to seek a solution to resolve their differences “through dialogue,” but South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha lambasted Japan’s moves to tighten export controls against her nation.

“Two countries sometimes face various difficulties respectively, but even under such circumstances, Japan, China and South Korea should work together trilaterally,” Kono said at the outset of a foreign ministerial gathering of the three nations in Beijing.

Kang, however, said South Korea hopes that 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.

At the trilateral meeting, Kono, Wang and Kang coordinated the schedule for their leaders’ summit in China later this year.

Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul have in turn been hosting the annual summits, but they were occasionally put off against the backdrop of a chill in Japan’s relations with its two neighbors over history and territorial disputes as well as political turmoil in South Korea.

Recently, ties between Tokyo and Seoul have plunged to the lowest point since normalization 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 labor.

All eyes are on whether the foreign ministers from the three East Asian nations can pave the way for holding a trilateral summit this year, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have shown little sign of making concessions.

In 2018, South Korea’s top court ruled that Japanese companies must compensate people who said they were victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

Abe’s government has argued that the decisions are 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 on some processed foods and agricultural products from Japan.

The South Korean government is taking the stance of tightening implemented measures following a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant triggered by a powerful earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

However, the move, 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, processed foods such as chocolate, blueberries, coffee and food additives.

Kono, Wang and Kang met at a resort in the Chinese capital also 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 are likely to confirm that the three nations will work in tandem to achieve 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 have banned North Korea from using ballistic technology.

Japanese, Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers are meeting together for the first time since they did so in Tokyo in August 2016. The last trilateral summit was held in Tokyo in May 2018.

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