07.12.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China, Japan and ROK took place in Busan; North Korea was somewhere nearby

The meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China, Japan and Kazakhstan took place in Busan

On 26 November, the 10th meeting of the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea was held in Busan, South Korea. From the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s summary of the event, which was written in the most general terms, it appears that each of the participants was mainly engaged in presenting his or her own vision of the issues raised during the meetings. And, it seems, even tried to understand what their colleagues were talking about.

That is, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the only positive outcome of this event was the very fact that it was held four years after the previous one. Which, however, is quite a lot in today’s formidable times. Although when the PRC-Japan-Republic of Korea political platform was established ten to fifteen years earlier (mainly for the purpose of forming a trilateral “Free Trade Zone”), it was envisaged to hold annual ministerial-level meetings, summits of the heads of the participating countries, as well as a permanent meeting of working groups.

In general, the fact that since the end of 2019 any events at the above-mentioned venue have been cancelled fits perfectly with the sharp deterioration of the political situation in the world as a whole, and in the Indo-Pacific region in particular, which began at that time. This includes the North-East Asia sub-region, which is mainly formed by all three participants, as well as the “sides” of the above-mentioned “triangle”.

This is especially true of the Japan-China “side”. Among the various factors that are not conducive, to put it mildly, to maintaining a constructive state of bilateral political relations there, let us once again point to the escalating struggle for influence on the Southeast Asian sub-region, which in fact represents the “soft underbelly” of China. The latest illustration of this was Beijing’s wary reaction to the visit of Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong to Japan, which began on 28 November.

Comments on the latter’s talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida focused on cooperation in the military-industrial field, which in Japan is carried out under the special government programme Official Security Assistance (OSA) adopted in spring this year. Vietnam will be the third Southeast Asian country to benefit from this programme. Only three weeks earlier, agreements under OSA were concluded with the Philippines and Malaysia during the visit of the same F. Kishida to these countries.

It seems that since the spring of 2022, i.e., with the election of President Yoon Seok-yeol to the post of the ROK President, relations in the Japan-South Korea “side” of the mentioned “triangle” began to improve sharply. This opened the way for the realisation of the long-standing American project to form another triangular configuration in the composition of “the USA-Japan-Republic of Korea”. The apogee of this process was the summit of the participants, which took place in August of this year at the residence of American presidents in Camp David.

But just before the meeting in Busan in the Republic of Korea, the so-called “comfort women problem”, which has been discussed by various authors in the IEE on numerous occasions, became relevant again. The reason for this was a certain decision of the Seoul upper court. Which surprised Tokyo in a very and unpleasant way. And, indeed, in relations between Japan and the ROK for the last year and a half everything was developing so well. And suddenly, the “problem of comfort women” looms on the horizon of bilateral relations again.

We can’t expect the “problem of Korean workers forcibly recruited during the Second World War” to be brought back to life. Despite the “closure” of the latter. This has been stated recently and repeatedly during Japan-South Korea meetings at various levels

For now, we can only wonder who and why Seoul (?) needed to bring the “comfort women issue” back to the political surface. But this topic was naturally raised by the Japanese side at the meeting with its counterparts from the Republic of Korea held here in Busan. In response, it was assured that it would respect the bilateral intergovernmental agreement concluded in December 2015 with the active participation of then ROK President Park Geun-hye. For what she was actually (but formally on another occasion) put in prison for 25 years in April 2018. However, three years later she was pardoned by a special decree of the previous (i.e. her successor in office) president of the Republic of Korea.

Meanwhile, curious information about a possible trip of the Prime Minister of Japan F. Kishida to North Korea to meet with the leader of this country Kim Jong-in has appeared. In order, as stated, to solve “the problem of the abducted”. We are talking about several dozen Japanese people allegedly (40 years ago) “abducted by North Korean security services”.

In this connection, it should be recalled that in 2014, the then head of the Asia-Pacific Department of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, J. Ihara, visited Pyongyang with the same publicly stated goals. This was the first trip to the DPRK by an official representative of Japan (then Prime Minister Koizumi) since 2004. It had been carefully prepared for many months in the course of (unclassified) Japanese-North Korean contacts on “neutral” territories. Mainly in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. There were also rumours that then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also due to visit Pyongyang.

It should be emphasised that “Japanese intrigues” in the North Korean direction are quite favourably regarded in their “object”, despite the loud anti-Japanese philippics constantly heard from Pyongyang and the same “missile launches”. But, of course, not in the U.S., where, after the above-mentioned visit to the DPRK by a high-ranking Japanese official, patience finally ran out and a weighty fist rattled on the (State Department) table in Washington: “You should start draughts behind our back with a common enemy!”. Then Tokyo had to hastily curtail the long-prepared combination in relations with the DPRK.

And now, after another 10 years, the current Prime Minister F. Kishida is going to Pyongyang, ostensibly to solve the same “problem of the abducted”. This time, however, it is difficult to expect any similar harshness from Washington. If only because the overseas hegemon is no longer in what is called “sports-political” form today.

By the way, all these Japanese-North Korean games once again show that in the course of “turning to the East” of the policy of any country brought up on “European traditions”, one should look very carefully at what is actually happening here. In the sense that the “first impression” may turn out to be (quite) deceptive.

What associations does the mentioning of the DPRK mainly evoke in the public space? Most often they are caused by the “security challenges (so far and mainly) to Japan by the same “missile launches” of the former. Which are carried out so carefully that they do not violate the airspace of the latter, which is limited to a height of 100 kilometres. The credibility of reports of North Korean missiles falling even within the 200-mile “Zone of Exclusive Economic Interests” of Japan is also extremely doubtful. Not to mention the 12-mile zone of territorial waters.

And, in general, the life of the Japanese Ministry of Defence and, incidentally, the contingent of the American armed forces in the same ROK would be dramatically complicated if there were no this “North Korean threat”. For, in fact, both the Japanese and the Americans have a completely different and much more serious source of concern. But it is still (and still is) not very “politically correct” to talk about it all the time.

In fact, and as it may not seem surprising, all the current participants in the political games in Northeast Asia, each fulfilling his or her assigned role, constitute a strange unified whole. The evolution of which, we must repeat, should be watched very closely. In this regard, the meeting in Busan of the Foreign Ministers of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea was very informative.

As for its outcome, it was illustrated by the refusal of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to attend the closing dinner. Under the pretext of a “tight schedule of urgent business”. Therefore, the other two ministers apparently “dined” each in his own hotel room.

However, it is more reliable that way, because in our crazy times you need an eye and an eye on what you are served on your plate.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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