SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - In Seoul Sunday leaders from China, Japan and South Korea met for the first time in three-and-a-half years to restart stalled regional cooperation and end their diplomatic standoff over the contentious issues that divide them.
"Through trilateral cooperation I believe that we will contribute to the peace and prosperity and security of not only our three countries but the region and the international community." said South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a news conference following the summit.
President Park hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for talks that all three leaders described as in-depth and frank.
Beijing and Seoul had suspended these regular high-level meetings with Tokyo in 2012 over territorial disputes and concerns that Prime Minister Abe has been trying to downplay past atrocities committed by Japan’s military during its colonization of much of Asia until the end of World War II.
At the news conference Chinese Premier Li said their historical disagreements must still be resolved, but they should not block regional economic and security cooperation.
“We need to achieve mutual understanding regarding history and historical issues and we need to look toward the future and agree on a future direction based on dialogue and cooperation,” said Premier Li.
Neither Park nor Abe addressed their historical disagreements at the trilateral news conference. The South Korean president and the Japanese prime minister will hold their first bilateral meeting Monday and will likely focus more on this contentious issue.
Until recently Park had refused to meet with Abe until he apologized for the thousands of Asian “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military during its occupation of Asia and World War II.
Abe has articulated condolences for the victims and promised to uphold apologies made by past Japanese leaders, but he has refused to accede to Seoul’s demand for stronger language and compensation.
Free trade agreements
At the summit the three Northeast Asian powers promised to establish a trilateral free trade zone and advance an “East Asia Market” through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP.)
Negotiations for the 16-country RCEP began in 2013 but have stalled of late. This all-Asian free trade agreement includes the Northeast Asian powers as well as India and Australia, but not the United States.
Many see the RCEP as a China-driven rival to the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership that was recently agreed to by 12 Pacific Rim economies that includes Japan and the U.S. but not China.
Prime Minister Abe said all three leaders saw “eye to eye” on the need for regional free trade agreements and he not did see any conflict with Japan being part of both the RCEP and TPP.
“The TPP which promotes free trade has been signed by Japan and other countries but Japan also agrees that we need an economic agreement for this region as well.”
South Korea has expressed an interest in joining the TPP in the future. China has not voiced an interest in joining the trade pact but said it hopes the TPP will boost economic growth in Asia.
The Northeast Asian leaders also reaffirmed their support of restarting “six party” talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program
In 2007 the “six party” talks that involved the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas reached an agreement for North Korea to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in return for emergency energy assistance.
In 2009 Pyongyang walked out of the talks, expelled international inspectors and subsequently conducted three nuclear tests that have drawn international condemnation and increasing U.N. sanctions.
Seoul and Tokyo support Washington’s position that North Korea live up to its past agreements and halt its nuclear program before any new talks can begin.
Beijing has voiced support for greater communication and cooperation on this issue and is expanding economic ties with North Korea.
(Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.)