03.07.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit on May 26-27 in Seoul. Part two: the bilateral meetings

Yoon Suk-yeol and Li Qiang

The bilateral meetings between the leaders held on May 26 revealed how different Seoul’s current relations with Beijing and Tokyo are in terms of the matters up for discussion.

What Yoon Suk-yeol and Li Qiang agreed on

Li Qiang, Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, arrived in Seoul around noon. This was his first visit to the country since taking office in March 2023. Lee and Yoon’s first meeting, in September 2023, took place in Indonesia on the margins of the ASEAN summit.

In his opening remarks, South Korean president Yoon Seok-yeol emphasized the importance of cooperation with China “in the face of today’s complex global challenges,” – in particular to address the growing economic uncertainty over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“Over the past three decades of diplomatic relations between the two countries, bilateral relations have rapidly made significant progress, especially in the fields of economy and trade, bringing great benefits to the people of both countries,” Li Qiang said during his opening remarks.

The main outcomes of the meeting can be divided into several categories, as follows.

Security issues: Yoon and Lee agreed to establish a two-plus-two diplomatic security dialogue between the two countries’ foreign and defense ministries in mid-June and to resume the strategic dialogue between their deputy foreign ministers in the second half of 2024. The resumption of this diplomacy and security channel comes after the two countries halted such meetings in 2016 when Korea and China disagreed over the placement of the US THAAD missile defense system on South Korean territory.

Economical issues. The main goal in this area is to resume negotiations on the second phase of the bilateral free trade agreement between the two countries in early June in order to boost mutual trade in the services sector and mutual investment. The first phase of the free trade agreement, which entered into force in December 2015, included the elimination of tariffs on basic goods. “Discussions will go beyond opening markets in the trade in goods and cover sectors such as services, culture, tourism and legal services to expand exchanges and openness between the two countries,” First Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Tae-hyo said at a press briefing. This is important because although the agreement will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2025 its effectiveness has been questioned due to the relatively narrow range of goods covered by the tariff concessions. Moreover, the talks were actually suspended as part of China’s response to South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD system.

Then, after a 13-year hiatus, the sides also agreed to revitalize the work of the Investment Cooperation Committee at the ministerial level.

The trade ministries of the two countries will also enter into a high-level dialogue in order to discuss ways to stabilize supply chains in key industries. 

The North Korean issue. According to a senior official in the South Korean presidential administration, during the meeting, Yoon requested China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to “actively contribute to promoting peace” in the light of North Korea’s nuclear development and its military cooperation with Russia. South Korea also urged Beijing was urged to “cooperate not only for our bilateral relationship but also for the peace and prosperity of the international community” amid today’s complex geopolitical crisis.

Li Qiang responded that China is working for a peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue and believes that political stability is also important.

Addressing common threats. It was decided to strengthen cooperation in combating transnational criminal activity related to drugs trafficking, illegal gambling and fraud. This is a rather pressing issue for South Korea, where, as appears from national media reports, criminal groups from China, in most cases made up of Chinese Koreans, are active.

Exchanges. The work of the bilateral Committee for the Promotion of Humanitarian Exchanges and the youth exchange project has been resumed, and exchanges at the local level are expected to intensify and expand in the future, based on the principles of mutual respect and the quest for results that benefit both nations.

In addition to the summit, Li Qiang met with Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong and urged the South Korean conglomerate to continue investing in China.

Summary. Yang Pyong-seob, a visiting research fellow at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy’s China section views Li Qiang’s visit to Korea as a turning point in the two countries’ economic relations, which have deteriorated over the past few years. This improvement in bilateral relations is expected to benefit Korean firms doing business in China.

The Korea Times views the relationship between Seoul and Beijing as important for regional security and broader geopolitical relations, including with the US, Russia and North Korea. In terms of that relationship, Yoon and Lee’s meeting should be seen as a notable development.

China’s relationship with North Korea, despite Pyongyang’s repeated violations of UN demands, remains a key issue. Yoon therefore still has a lot of work to do to persuade China to cooperate and to “redouble efforts to facilitate the Chinese leader’s visit to Seoul, which would further strengthen the progress made at the summit.”

China’s point of view On May 29 Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming insisted that bilateral relations between South Korea and China should not be influenced by “third-party factors,” stressing that South Korea is an important neighbor and a reliable partner for China. Xing expressed hope that “South Korea will continue the partnership to facilitate mutual development as we respect each other’s common interests.”

Finally, Xing said that South Korea’s alliance with the United States and its relationship with China are equally important to Seoul. “South Korea’s efforts to develop ties with the US and also with China do not go against one another,” he said. 

What Yoon Suk-yeol and Fumio Kishida agreed on

Over the past year, the two leaders have held nine face-to-face meetings as part of bilateral and multilateral events.

“Based on these achievements, I hope we can work together to prepare for a historic leap forward in our bilateral relations when the two countries mark the 60th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations,” Yoon said in his opening remarks.

Kishida expressed hope for continued cooperation between Japan and South Korea in addressing global issues. “I hope that Korea and Japan can further strengthen our cooperation to effectively address global issues while preserving and strengthening a free and open Indo-Pacific” he said.

As before, we shall summarize the results of their meeting in relation to the main subject areas they addressed:

General overview of the relationship Both leaders noted that over the past year there has been a significant improvement in bilateral contacts and exchanges at all levels, the channels of interaction between governmental advisory bodies of the two countries have been restored, and the leaders agreed to further continue the practice of “shuttle diplomacy,” which relies on mutual trust and a shared determination to expand cooperation in various areas. Compared to Seoul’s relationship with Beijing, there is indeed more such activity, and since Yoon Seok-yeol’s “pivot towards Japan” the intensity of these contacts has increased tremendously.

Security issues, Yoon and Kishida pledged to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with the United States to contain threats from North Korea’s nuclear program and also to intensify cooperation on regional and global issues. While the two countries have concluded agreements to strengthen interactions in the Seoul-Tokyo, US-South Korea-Japan formats, in general it should be noted that bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan in relation to security issues are not developed and that interaction in this area is conducted through Washington.

Economy The two leaders concluded agreements to strengthen cooperation to ensure supply chain sustainability through the establishment of a Hydrogen Cooperation Dialogue, under which standards and norms for hydrogen-based energy etc. will be developed, and a Cooperation Dialogue on Raw Materials and Resources, aimed at stabilizing the supply chain of key raw materials in the event of a crisis.

Japan and South Korea also decided to develop interaction in order to boost their results in such areas as energy, economic security, startups and SMEs, information and communications technologies and advanced technologies. They have stepped up their dialogue on a number of policy issues related to the development of SMEs, and expanded their partnership in the field of advanced technologies (space, bio- and quantum technologies).

Another issue touched on in the talks was the dispute relating to Japan’s pressurizing of the South Korean Internet company Naver Corporation to sell it a controlling stake in the Line instant messaging service, which is a popular app in Japan. “Yoon said that … the South Korean government perceives this issue separately from the diplomatic relations between the two countries,” said an official.

The issue centers around Japan’s LY Corp. the operator of Line, a 50/50 joint venture between South Korea’s leading portal Naver and Japan’s SoftBank Corp. Kishida explained that the Japanese government’s policy in this matter is focused on directing the company to review its “security management in response to data leakages.”

Addressing common threats, Both sides positively assessed their cooperation and mutual assistance in relation to the evacuation of citizens from crisis-hit regions in such countries as Sudan and Israel.

The DPRK. As was to be expected, both leaders expressed concerns about the DPRK’s “gross violation of UN Security Council sanctions, Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw from the negotiation process and the build-up of nuclear weapons.”

In addition, Yoon Suk-yeol and Fumio Kishida called on North Korea to abandon its planned launch of a military reconnaissance satellite, which is expected to take place in the near future.

In conclusion, both bilateral summits were important, but there were no breakthroughs, and the talks revealed the areas in which the parties are most concerned to make progress, and the issues which it would be best to lay to one side and not raise in future talks in order to avoid damaging relations.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook

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