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South Korea, China, Japan leaders meet for rare summit

SEOUL (AFP)South Korean, Chinese and Japanese leaders met in Seoul Monday for their first trilateral summit in nearly five years, after nuclear-armed North Korea announced plans to put another satellite into orbit.

There are low expectations of any major breakthroughs at the meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, but the leaders have expressed hopes it could help revitalise three-way diplomacy.

Just ahead of the summit, North Korea informed the Japanese Coast Guard of an imminent satellite launch window, confirming a recent South Korean intelligence assessment that Pyongyang would try to put another military reconnaissance satellite into orbit.

Although the North was not officially on the programme for the talks, with Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing aiming to find consensus on easier economic ground, the pending launch ensured Pyongyang made it onto the agenda.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol (C), Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (L) and China’s Premier Li Qiang (R) attend the trilateral summit meeting at the Blue House in Seoul on May 27, 2024. PHOTO: AFP

“Any launch using ballistic missile technology would directly violate UN Security Council resolutions and undermine regional and global peace and stability,” Yoon said in his opening remarks, before going into the talks.

“I believe that if North Korea launches despite warnings from the international community, the international community should respond decisively,” he added.

“I hope that our three countries, who are working together as members of the UN Security Council this year will join forces to contribute to peace and prosperity in the international community by gathering wisdom and strength in the face of a global complex crisis and geopolitical conflicts,” he said.

Kishida called on the North to “stop the launch”, before heading into what he said he hoped would be “in-depth discussions” with his counterparts “on how concrete cooperation can be pursued in line with the present era”.

Chinese Premier Li said in his opening remarks that the three countries were willing “to seek mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation” Xinhua reported.

“Li called for opposing turning economic and trade issues into political games or security matters, and rejecting protectionism as well as decoupling or the severing of supply chains,” the news agency said.

North Korea is barred by multiple UN resolutions from tests using ballistic technology.

Analysts say there is significant technological overlap between space launch capabilities and the development of ballistic missiles.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and a key diplomatic ally, and it has previously resisted condemning Pyongyang for its weapons tests, instead criticising joint US-South Korea drills for raising tension.

Tilted diplomacy? 


After the leaders’ summit, Yoon, Li and Kishida will hold a press conference, before joining a business summit aimed at boosting trade between the countries, which will also be attended by top industry leaders.

Experts have warned that, due to the three countries’ starkly divergent positions on key issues including Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and growing ties with Russia, it will be hard for them to form a consensus on tricky geopolitical issues.

“Despite the challenges in organising this meeting, it is unlikely to produce significant diplomatic achievements,” South Korea’s newspaper The Hankyoreh said in an editorial Monday.

“Nevertheless, this meeting is important because it is the only regular communication channel where the leaders of South Korea and Japan, both allies of the United States, can meet with the Chinese leader,” it said.

Seoul should use the trilateral meeting “to overcome the limitations of the tilted diplomacy with Washington and Tokyo and reconstruct the framework of trilateral diplomacy of South Korea, China and Japan, which has been out of favour for some time,” The Hankyoreh said.

President Xi Jinping is China’s top leader, with Li serving under him as premier.

Nuclear-armed North Korea launched its first reconnaissance satellite last November in a move that drew international condemnation, with the United States calling it a “brazen violation” of UN sanctions.

Seoul said on Friday that South Korean and US intelligence authorities were “closely monitoring and tracking” presumed preparations for the launch of another military reconnaissance satellite.

“North Korea, China, and Russia have effectively claimed that launching reconnaissance satellites does not breach UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Pyongyang,” Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.

“However, considering China’s involvement, it appears the North will likely hold off on any launches during the trilateral meeting, convened after a significant break, in deference to Beijing’s stance.