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International relations

Japan, US, South Korea face test on unity over North Korea

Planned inter-Korean talks could drive a wedge in trilateral pressure campaign

From left to right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump

TOKYO/SEOUL -- As South Korea begins talks with its northern neighbor about taking part in next month's Olympics, a rift is emerging among Tokyo, Washington and Seoul that threatens a carefully built framework designed to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning nuclear weapons.

North and South Korea each will send five high-ranking representatives to a meeting Tuesday morning at Panmunjom, the truce village on the countries' de facto border. North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea will be on the agenda, as will improving bilateral ties, the South's Ministry of Unification said. Tuesday's event represents the first high-level meeting between the two Koreas in over two years.

The South Korean delegation will be led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who was involved with inter-Korean summits under then-Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Cho also played a key role in promoting the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang resort, two joint economic projects with Pyongyang.

North Korea's chief representative will be Ri Son Gwon, head of the body handling inter-Korean affairs. The former military man is expected to take a hard line against Seoul and demand that the country end joint military drills with the U.S.

Breaking ranks

Meanwhile, concerned that South Korea could give in too much to the North's demands, Japan sent a diplomat to Seoul to reiterate its hard-line position on Pyongyang.

Kenji Kanasugi, who leads the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, met Monday in Seoul with Lee Do-hoon, the South Korean special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.

"We agreed to continue ramping up pressure on North Korea in order to urge the country to change its policies," Kanasugi told reporters later. But South Korea's statement differed slightly, emphasizing diplomatic efforts toward a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Japan and the U.S. led the campaign for fresh United Nations sanctions on North Korea in December, paving the way to cut off Pyongyang's oil supply should it conduct additional military provocations. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un then said in his New Year's speech that he was prepared to send athletes to the Olympics in February. Seoul reacted immediately, postponing joint military drills with Washington that had been scheduled during the event.

Ulterior motives

South Korea's response was not necessarily a surprise. But North Korea could argue that it refrained from nuclear and missile tests only because Seoul and Washington stopped their joint exercises. Once the two allies resume, Pyongyang might claim that South Korea violated their understanding.

North Korea has made several overtures for dialogue during the past quarter-century, with Japan, the U.S. and South Korea responding favorably. But the rogue state would eventually change its mind, preventing any meaningful progress on resolving the nuclear issue. Tuesday's talks could result in a similar pattern.

"The Olympics are a celebration of peace, so I appreciate these developments," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said, outwardly welcoming the North-South talks. But Tokyo does not want the dialogue to interfere with economic pressure on Pyongyang.

Abe has urged countries to impose sanctions on North Korea in hopes of squeezing the Kim regime's funding for nuclear and missile development. Should South Korea agree to provide humanitarian assistance or ease sanctions, nations like China and Russia that have been reluctant to penalize the North could follow suit.

Looming concerns

The U.S. and Japan are now focusing on the North's possible moves after the Paralympic Games end March 18. Kim on New Year's Day called for greater efforts toward deployment of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. The North has yet to perfect the technology for its intercontinental ballistic missiles to re-enter the atmosphere. Government officials and experts seem to agree that the country plans further tests.

Meanwhile, South Korea is set to announce its response resulting from the country's review of the 2015 bilateral deal on wartime "comfort women." Japan is concerned that the issue could cast shadows over their cooperation on North Korea.

Tokyo also remains concerned about often-inconsistent statements by U.S. President Donald Trump. "I would love to see [North and South Korea] take it beyond the Olympics" during their upcoming meeting, Trump told reporters Saturday.

"Our position on applying maximum pressure will not change," a top Japanese official said. But North Korea can take advantage of any rifts among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.

Nikkei staff writer Sotaro Suzuki in Seoul contributed to this story.

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