The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Four-way relations

By 최남현

Published : May 23, 2011 - 18:48

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Northeast Asia, namely China, Japan and the two Koreas, has been engaged in brisk top-level meetings since last weekend to address the increasingly complex issues involving the region. While North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was touring China, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao discussed security, trade and disaster control in a summit in Tokyo Sunday after visiting the earthquake-hit northeastern Japan Saturday.

Wen broke with a tradition and admitted Kim Jong-il’s traveling to his country, which he said was intended to “familiarize” the North Korean chief with the economic development achieved in China and to offer opportunities for the North to utilize China’s experiences. In bilateral talks with President Lee, Wen said he believed Seoul would positively assess the North Korean leader’s rather frequent visits to China.

The trilateral summit, which became an annual event in 2008, agreed on a variety of subjects ranging from operating an early notification system for nuclear accidents to accelerating efforts to forge a three-way free trade agreement. The three leaders tasted cherry tomatoes and cucumbers to demonstrate their faith in the safety of the produce from areas near the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant. Beijing quickly eased restrictions on food imports from Japan.

A joint summit declaration pledged cooperation not only on nuclear safety but also on economic and security issues and a set of documents specified more detailed steps for disaster management and ways to promote environmentally-sustainable development. The devastation from the March 11 disaster, especially the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, provided a greater sense of urgency for stepped-up cooperation among the three neighboring countries.

It was for this reason that the leaders left untouched some traditionally troublesome issues, including the official perception of history up to and during World War II and territorial disputes over islands located in the seas between the three countries. On the other hand, the three leaders expressed concerns over Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program and agreed to work together for the restarting of the six-party denuclearization talks.

The result of the three-way summit could thus be assessed as satisfactory, if thanks in part to the atmosphere of emergency in the host nation. Yet, after another round of the top-level meetings, we are again convinced of what the most important ingredients for regional peace and prosperity are.

They are, first of all, respect for the status quo regarding territorial issues; second, Japan’s acceptance of the historical guilt over atrocities it committed to its neighbors and refraining from any kind of official activities to gloss over the past; and third, China’s use of its influence on North Korea to find a reasonable course toward survival without nuclear adventures. These may sound like selfish assertions from a unilateral South Korean standpoint, but we believe that consensus will grow among the peoples of our neighbors, excluding some extremists, on how they should adjust their national claims to global standards for peaceful coexistence.

Kim Jong-il’s current visit to China, the third in a year’s time, which is exceptional between two sovereign states, testifies to the North’s rapidly deepening economic and political dependence on its only ally. Whether Seoul will positively assess it “from a far-reaching strategic dimension,” as Premier Wen presumed, will depend on how Beijing drives Pyongyang toward behaving like a normal member of the international community. Meanwhile, an improvement was seen in Japan of late with its officials’ apparent restraint on visits to the Yasukuni Shrine for the war-dead and war criminals.