It is meaningful that the leaders of South Korea, the US and Japan confirmed they share the same view on North Korea’s continued missile launches that threaten security on the Korean Peninsula and destabilize geopolitics in the East Asian region.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, while on his two-nation tour, met with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Phnom Penh on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Cambodia on Sunday and issued a joint statement pledging to step up deterrence against Pyongyang.
The leaders condemned North Korea’s barrage of missile launches this year, including multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles, and urged the regime to follow its earlier commitments with moving toward denuclearization.
Although some thorny diplomatic, economic and historical issues remain unresolved among the three countries, the official demonstration of Yoon’s resolve to fight the North’s threats in the form of a stronger trilateral partnership marks a notable progress toward defusing red-hot geopolitical tensions.
Biden reiterated the US’ “ironclad” commitment and extended deterrence to defending South Korea and Japan, aided by the full range of capabilities, including nuclear, according to the joint statement.
In the same vein, Kishida said that as for the continued provocations by North Korea, Japan would respond resolutely by strengthening the ties with South Korea and the US.
As the presidential office noted, the joint statement has a “comprehensive nature” that covers information sharing on the details of the North’s missile launches, as well as establishing a new trilateral economic security dialogue for “economic coercion.”
The first-ever joint statement of the three nations concerning the security matter in the region is expected to deliver an unequivocal warning message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has become increasingly fearless in saber-rattling.
Aside from Yoon’s presentation of South Korea’s new Indo-Pacific strategy during the summit for a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, his summit with Kishida -- their second meetup in less than two months -- deserves attention.
Since Yoon took office in May, he has been pushing to thaw frosty relations between South Korea and Japan. It is too early to say that real progress has been made yet about the highly sensitive historical disputes that stem from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, but there is no denying that Yoon’s diplomatic steps to improve ties with Japan are bearing initial fruit.
During the bilateral summit, both leaders condemned North Korea’s successive missile launches and agreed to work jointly with the US to deter the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
As for the longstanding dispute over Japanese firms’ payment of compensation to Korean forced labor victims, Yoon and Kishida agreed to continue discussions for a “swift resolution,” according to the presidential office.
But Yoon should not repeat the same mistake made by his predecessors to resolve the issue in a hurry. Japan is still unwilling to recognize the brutalities of the colonial aggression and its politicians continue to visit or send offerings to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrine Japan’s infamous war dead. Furthermore, Japan has not changed its unilateral position that all matters of compensation were resolved under a 1965 bilateral treaty.
It should be noted that the Japanese media have long been quoting Japanese diplomatic sources as saying that “the ball is now in South Korea’s court” -- a suggestion that Japan does not want to lift a finger concerning the compensation issue and South Korea should resolve the issue by itself.
Against this backdrop, Yoon might go for another unfair deal with Japan, which may help improve ties with Japan for the short term, but leaves the fundamental cause of frictions largely unresolved. Therefore, Yoon is urged to weigh various options in negotiations with Japan and focus more on solidifying the trilateral cooperation to deal with the North’s intensifying threats.
On Tuesday, Yoon is set to attend the first day of the G-20 summit, while some speculate that he may meet for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the events’ sidelines. It is hoped that Yoon will wrap up his largely successful tour without another embarrassing incident like the one in New York in September that marred his image.