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Japan, China, S. Korea divided over evaluating N. Korea's denuclearization efforts

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are seen with other top officials of the governments of the three countries in a summit meeting at the State Guesthouse in the Motoakasaka district of Tokyo's Minato Ward on May 9, 2018. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- Despite an agreement at a May 9 three-way summit here to urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, Japan, China and South Korea remain divided over what should be regarded as "concrete actions" toward denuclearization and at which stage sanctions on Pyongyang should be eased.

At the beginning of the trilateral summit meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "We should work to ensure complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of all of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction and all its ballistic missile programs."

However, sources close to the Japanese government said China and South Korea reacted coolly to Japan's stance toward the issue.

The latest U.N. Security Council resolution, based on which sanctions have been imposed on the North, explicitly mentions CVID. Japan is taking the position that it is only natural to demand Pyongyang achieve CVID as long as countries concerned have confirmed that the resolution should be implemented.

However, China and South Korea want to avoid pouring cold water on reconciliatory moves.

"China is aiming to be a supporter of North Korea. South Korea has prioritized reconciliation with the North since their bilateral summit, and doesn't frequently mention CVID lately," said a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

China demonstrated its close alliance with North Korea through another bilateral summit meeting on May 8 before the Japan-China-South Korea summit.

According to China's state-run news agency Xinhua, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the trilateral summit meeting that "we have a crucial opportunity to improve the situation on the Korean Peninsula," underscoring the importance of achieving reconciliation through dialogue. The premier has thus clarified Beijing's position to support North Korea's intention to abandon its nuclear arms development program.

Li told a joint news conference following the tripartite summit that China will "play a constructive role" in achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He also expressed enthusiasm about helping to promote Tokyo-Pyongyang dialogue and solving the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. He then apparently encouraged Japan to cooperate with the move.

The Chinese premier also said the three countries should capitalize on their own merits in responding to North Korea, suggesting that Beijing is willing to mediate between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

The leaders of the three countries reconfirmed their positions to implement the U.N. resolution. At the same time, however, China has apparently launched efforts to relax the sanctions on Pyongyang based on the resolution. Chinese President Xi Jinping told his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a telephone conversation on May 8 that the United States and North Korea should compromise and take actions on a step-by-step basis," expressing support for North Korea's request for rewards in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

At the Japan-South Korea summit, Prime Minister Abe warned that the sanctions on North Korea should not be easily relaxed. South Korean President Moon Jae-in responded that there is no concern that his country will ease its sanctions on Pyongyang without a resolution by the international community.

The Moon government, which attaches importance to improving relations with the North, has expressed its intention to continue to keep pace with the international community regarding the sanctions against Pyongyang. However, Seoul apparently aspires to resume operations at the Kaesong Industrial Region, a special industrial zone in North Korea, and cooperate in other ways with Pyongyang at an early date.

During the summit, Moon mentioned the February 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and clarified Seoul's position to promote North-South reconciliation while attaching importance to the sanctions against Pyongyang. "We carried out assistance projects while holding consultations so that they didn't violate U.N. and U.S. sanctions," Moon said on May 9.

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department, Keisuke Kawazu, China General Bureau, and Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau)

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