South Korean, Chinese and Japanese Leaders Discuss Cooperation, North Korea as They Gather in Seoul

Chinese Premier Li Qiang waves to media members
Chinese Premier Li Qiang, left, waves to media members before getting into a car as Kim Hong-kyun, right, South Korean 1st vice foreign minister, follows behind at the Seoul airport in Seongnam, South Korea, Sunday, May 26, 2024, as the premier arrives for a trilateral meeting. Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan will meet next week in Seoul for their first trilateral talks since 2019. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's president reportedly called for a greater Chinese role in addressing concerns about North Korean nuclear threats during a meeting with the visiting Chinese premier on Sunday on the eve of a trilateral meeting involving Japan's leader.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held rounds of bilateral talks among themselves on Sunday to discuss ways to enhance cooperation and other issues. They were set to meet Monday for a trilateral session, the first such meeting in more than four years.

No major announcement is expected from Monday’s three-way gathering. But observers say that just resuming their highest-level, three-way talks is a good sign and suggests the three Asian neighbors are intent on improving relations. Their trilateral meeting was supposed to happen annually but it had stalled since the last one in December 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and complex ties among the three countries.

    Yoon and Li agreed to launch a new South Korean-Chinese dialogue channel involving senior diplomats and defense officials in mid-June. They also agreed to restart negotiations to expand the free trade agreement and reactivate dormant bodies on personnel exchanges, investments and other issues, according to Yoon’s office.

    Chinese state media reported Li told Yoon that the two countries should safeguard the stability of their deeply intertwined industrial and supply chains and resist turning economic and trade issues into political and security-related issues.

    Yoon also asked China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to contribute to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, while speaking about North Korea's nuclear program and its deepening military ties with Russia, according to South Korean media reports.

    Yoon's office couldn't immediately confirm the report. But it said Yoon and Kishida in their separate meeting expressed worries about North Korea’s nuclear program and agreed to strengthen their cooperation with the United States.

    South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have long urged China — North Korea’s major ally and economic pipeline — to use its leverage to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But China is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea and sending clandestine aid shipments to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat.

    North Korea's nuclear program and other sensitive topics like China’s claim over self-governed Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not among the official agenda items for Monday's trilateral meeting. South Korean officials said that a joint statement after Monday's meeting will cover the leaders' discussion on cooperation in areas like people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, technology and disaster responses.

    The three neighbors are important trading partners and their cooperation is key to promoting regional peace and prosperity. They together make up about 25% of global gross domestic product. But the three countries have been repeatedly embroiled in bitter disputes over a range of historical and diplomatic issues originating from Japan’s wartime atrocities. China's rise and a U.S. push reinforce its Asian alliances have also significantly impacted their three-way ties in recent years.

    Experts say South Korea, China and Japan now share a need to improve ties. South Korea and Japan want better ties with China because it is their biggest trading partner. China, for its part, likely believes a further strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation would hurt its national interests.

    China, meanwhile, has always sent its premier, the country’s No. 2 official, to the trilateral leaders' meeting since its first session in 2008. Observers say China earlier argued that under then-collective leadership, its premier was chiefly in charge of economic affairs and best suited to attend the meeting, which largely focuses on economic issues.

    But they say China may face more demands for President Xi Jinping to attend because he has concentrated power in his hands and defied the norms of collective leadership.


    Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Simina Mistreanu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.

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