China, Japan premiers in Seoul for rare summit

Chinese Premier Li Qiang (L, with South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun) arrives in Seoul for the summit with Japan and South Korea (ANTHONY WALLACE)
Chinese Premier Li Qiang (L, with South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun) arrives in Seoul for the summit with Japan and South Korea (ANTHONY WALLACE)

South Korean and Chinese leaders agreed Sunday to start diplomatic and security dialogue and push a trade deal, when they met in Seoul ahead of a key trilateral summit with Japan.

There are low expectations of any major announcements or breakthroughs at the trilateral meeting Monday, but the leaders have expressed hopes it could help revitalise three-way diplomacy and ease regional tensions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who is making his first visit to South Korea since taking office in March 2023, and they agreed to establish a diplomatic and security dialogue and resume talks on a free trade deal.

"China and South Korea face significant common challenges of the international affairs," Yoon said, pointing to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza as sources of increased uncertainty in the global economy.

But with decades of solid ties behind them, he said he hoped the two countries "will continue to strengthen our cooperation amid today's complex global crisis."

Li said Beijing wanted to work with Seoul to become "each other's friendly neighbours who trust each other and partners who succeed together."

The two leaders discussed North Korea, which has violated successive rounds of UN sanctions over its banned weapons programs, with Yoon telling Li he hoped China could be "a bastion of peace as a permanent member of the UN Security Council."

China is North Korea's largest trading partner and a key diplomatic ally, and it has previously resisted condemning Pyongyang for its weapons tests, instead criticising joint US-South Korea drills for raising tension.

- Trilateral talks -

Yoon, Li and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will hold a trilateral meeting on Monday, the first such encounter since 2019, partly due to the pandemic but also to long-strained ties between South Korea and Japan.

Yoon, who took office in 2022, has sought to bury the historical hatchet with former colonial power Japan in the face of rising threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Yoon met Kishida Sunday, and said the countries' trust and exchanges had "dramatically increased over the past year", pointing to booming tourism, with millions of Koreans flocking to visit Japan, and vice versa.

He said he hoped to see a "historic turning point" and a further deepening of ties to mark 60 years in 2025 since a post-war deal normalised relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

Kishida said he and Yoon had "a candid exchange of opinions about North Korea," and agreed to further ramp up cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

South Korea and Japan are key regional security allies of China's arch-rival the United States, but are eager to improve trade and ease tensions with Beijing, experts say.

- Fukushima -

At their bilateral meeting Sunday, China's Li urged Japan to "fulfill its responsibilities and obligations" over the release of wastewater from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, which he said "bears on the health of humanity", Xinhua reported.

China stopped accepting Japanese fish shipments last year when Tokyo began the releases, and during the meeting Kishida called again for the ban's immediate lifting, he told reporters.

Kishida said that he hoped International Atomic Energy Agency-led efforts to monitor "will help increase an understanding by countries including China" of the situation.

Kishida also said he had expressed concerns to Li over "over China's increasingly active military presence around our nation".

He also flagged his "serious concerns" over the South China Sea situation, plus other potential flashpoint issues including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul told AFP the summit would involve "shallower cooperation" than the level of foreign policy alignment between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.

But "that China is finally re-engaging in such trilateral coordination is good news for a rules-based regional order," he added.