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South Korea, China and Japan leaders to meet for first trilateral talks since 2019

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May 23, 2024

Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan will meet next week in Seoul for their first trilateral talks in more than four years to discuss how to revive their cooperation, South Korea’s presidential office said Thursday.

Since their inaugural stand-alone trilateral summit in 2008, the three countries were supposed to hold such a meeting among their leaders every year. But the summit has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic and often-complicated ties among the Asian neighbors since the last one in December 2019 in China.

The trilateral meeting among South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will take place in Seoul on Monday, Kim Tae-hyo, Seoul’s deputy national security director, told a news conference.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending.

Li and Kishida were scheduled to arrive in South Korea on Sunday. They were to meet Yoon bilaterally on Sunday afternoon before attending a welcoming dinner banquet with the South Korean president, Kim said.

“This summit will be a turning point for Korea, Japan and China to completely restore and normalize three-way cooperation systems,” Kim said.

During the trilateral meeting, Kim said the three leaders were expected to discuss cooperation on six South Korea-proposed topics — personnel exchanges, climate change, trade, health and aging population, technology and disasters. He said these discussions will be included in a joint statement after their summit.

Kim said the three leaders will also discuss unspecified regional and international political issues and how to respond together to a global poly-crisis and contribute to international peace.

Closely linked economically and culturally with one another, the three countries together account for about 25% of the global gross domestic product. But efforts to bolster trilateral cooperation often become snagged because of a mix of issues, including historical disputes stemming from Japan’s wartime aggression and the strategic competition between China and the United States.

South Korea and Japan are both key U.S. military allies, together hosting a total of 80,000 American troops on their territories. North Korea’s advancing nuclear program and China’s growing assertiveness in the region have forced South Korea and Japan to reinforce their trilateral security partnership with the United States. That has angered China and North Korea.

Ties between South Korea and Japan had fluctuated severely due to issues originating from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. But their relations warmed significantly since 2023 as the two countries took a series of major steps to move beyond that history and boost cooperation in the face of shared challenges like North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and supply chain vulnerabilities.

South Korea, Japan and the U.S. want China, North Korea’s major ally and biggest source of aid, to use its leverage to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. China doesn’t officially support North Korea’s nuclear program, but it’s suspected of avoiding fully enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea and shipping covert assistance to help its impoverished socialist neighbor stay afloat. Experts say China thinks North Korea serving as a bulwark against U.S. influences on the Korean Peninsula will serve its strategic interests.

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