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International relations

Japan and South Korea agree to coordinate with US on North Korea

Tokyo and Seoul try to thaw ties as foreign ministers meet in-person for first time

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, left, met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in London Wednesday.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will work closely together to bring North Korea back to denuclearization talks, despite frosty relations between Tokyo and Seoul, top diplomats from the three countries agreed Wednesday.

The agreement came after Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi spoke for about an hour with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong on the sidelines of the Group of Seven foreign ministers' summit in London. This is the first such trilateral meeting since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

Blinken, Chung and Motegi "reaffirmed their commitment to concerted trilateral cooperation toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as other issues of mutual interest," according to U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

"They also agreed on the imperative of fully implementing relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions by U.N. member states, including North Korea, preventing proliferation, and cooperating to strengthen deterrence and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Price added.

Blinken elaborated on the just-completed review of Washington's policy toward North Korea during the morning meeting. Motegi voiced his support for the agenda.

The U.S. has not yet publicized the details of the new North Korea policy, but it appears to have favor phased denuclearization instead of the so-called grand bargain strategy pursued in the previous administration.

All three sides agreed to call on North Korea to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to a summary of the meeting provided by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The resolutions demand that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner."

Since North Korea was the overarching theme of the trilateral meeting, China did not come up as a topic of discussion. Motegi asked for cooperation on resolving the abduction cases of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents and received support.

The U.S. called for the meeting in anticipation of improved relations between Japan and South Korea. Washington sees trilateral cooperation as the cornerstone in the policy toward North Korea.

A senior U.S. government official expressed concern over how the relations between Tokyo and Seoul had deteriorated to such a low level.

When Biden served as vice president under former President Barack Obama, he pushed for dialogue between Japan and South Korea over the wartime "comfort women" problem, creating an environment favorable to reaching an agreement. Obama's successor, President Donald Trump, who downplayed multilateral cooperation, was less interested in Japan-South Korean relations.   

Motegi and Chung spoke separately for 20 minutes following the trilateral meeting. Motegi reiterated his call for South Korea to swiftly indicate measures it will take to resolve the lawsuits involving former "comfort women" and wartime laborers. Chung said the issues cannot be resolved if Japan does not recognize history accurately.

The two sides agreed to maintain communication between diplomatic officials. Because relations have cooled, this is the first in-person meeting between Motegi and Chung since the latter assumed his duties in February. Previous talks between the two had been conducted by telephone.

Along with North Korea, the U.S. has been concerned with China. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House on May 21. It appears Moon will be asked to lend a hand in Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to counter China.

South Korea is hesitant to provoke China since Seoul is focused on the economic ties with the Asian power. The Biden administration has indicated that it will respect the positions of allies, but at the same time the White House is wary of a scenario in which South Korea leans closer to Beijing.

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