South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday before he meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the next day on the sidelines of a trilateral summit among the leaders of the three Northeast Asian powers in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.
The string of summits are taking place as tensions have risen over North Korea’s threats to resume nuclear and long-range missile tests unless the US offers concessions to break the deadlock in their stalled nuclear talks by the year-end.
Moon needs to focus his discussions with Xi and Abe on curbing additional provocations by the North and making the recalcitrant regime return to the negotiating table.
The Moon-Xi summit carries particular significance in handling the standoff with Pyongyang over its denuclearization.
China, along with Russia, has called for easing UN sanctions on the North as a way to help restart negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Xi may ask Moon to support a draft resolution on sanctions relief for Pyongyang, which China and Russia recently submitted to the UN Security Council.
Despite his willingness to enhance inter-Korean economic cooperation, Moon would find it difficult to respond positively to the request, given Washington’s stance that it is premature to lift some sanctions on the North.
Rather, he should be unequivocal in emphasizing the need to maintain pressure on Pyongyang to get it to be serious about dismantling its nuclear arsenal and ask for China’s more active role in achieving the North’s denuclearization.
Otherwise, he might raise Washington’s suspicions about his intent to be in step with it in dealing with Pyongyang.
US President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he spoke with Xi about the North Korean issue as well as a trade deal between the world’s two largest economies.
It was unclear what they discussed regarding the North during their phone call. But Trump seemed to have asked Xi to put pressure on it not to make further provocations.
The North is poised to launch a long-range missile anytime soon, in a move that its leader Kim Jong-un apparently believes could help draw concessions from Trump. Its state media said Sunday Kim presided over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party that discussed “core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defense,” giving no specific date of the gathering.
Facing the upcoming impeachment trial at the US Senate, Trump will be in no position to make concessions in response to Pyongyang’s reenactment of brinkmanship. Kim might run the risk of getting Trump to consider a military option if he launches a long-range missile.
During his summit with Xi, Moon will also have to walk a fine line in easing Beijing’s concerns about Seoul’s participation in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy designed to contain China’s rising power in the region.
On the other hand, he should ask for the complete removal of retaliatory measures China has taken against South Korea since Seoul allowed the deployment of an advanced US anti-missile system in 2016.
If Xi accepts an invitation from Moon to visit Seoul early next year, it could be seen as a signal that Beijing will lift the lingering restrictions on South Korea’s cultural contents and package tours to the country.
Moon should use his upcoming summit with Abe, which marks their first formal meeting in 15 months, to mend the frayed bilateral ties.
Improving relations with Japan is needed for South Korea to reduce downside risks to its sluggish economy as well as strengthen international coordination in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
In an apparent move to forge a favorable atmosphere for the Moon-Abe summit, Tokyo last week partially lifted export curbs it had imposed against Seoul in July amid an escalating dispute over an issue stemming from their unfortunate shared history.
The two leaders need to affirm their will to work toward finding a solution to the issue of compensating Koreans forced to work for Japanese firms during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
The trilateral summit to be hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to focus on enhancing economic cooperation among the three Northeast Asian nations.
The summit -- the eighth of its kind -- marks the 20th anniversary of the three-way cooperative mechanism, which was launched to help South Korea, China and Japan leave behind their historical conflicts and work together toward coprosperity in the future.
It is particularly hoped that the trilateral talks will give a significant impetus to negotiations on a free trade agreement involving the three countries.