A substantial agendaPresident Moon Jae-in will visit China next week for a tripartite summit with leaders from China and Japan. He will also have separate tete-a-tete meetings on the trip. Although the main event is the tripartite summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, more attention will be paid to Moon’s individual meeting with Abe and, beforehand, in Beijing, a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Chinese visit comes at a time that regional tensions have escalated. Pyongyang has threatened a “Christmas gift” to the United States and the world as its self-imposed deadline of the year’s end for progress in denuclearization talks nears. It ignored U.S. special envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun’s call for talks when he was in Seoul.
If Pyongyang ups its provocations and acts on its threat to go “in a new path,” all the diplomatic efforts for denuclearization over the last two years will go to waste. U.S. officials have been floating the idea of a military option. The international community must be united in its voice, and a synchronized position with China and Japan is essential for South Korea.
Moon must get support from Beijing and Tokyo to contain Pyongyang and bring it back to the negotiating table. United Nation envoys from China and Russia suggested in a recent UN Security Council meeting an easing of some sanctions on North Korea.
Xi could persuade Moon to back the resolution to ease UN sanctions as the dovish South Korean president has been for the idea of relaxing some of the sanctions on Pyongyang by resurrecting inter-Korean joint ventures on industrial production and tourism programs. But this is no time to ease sanctions. As soon as sanctions are eased, Pyongyang will no longer stay committed to any kind of denuclearization process and instead seek to gain recognition as a nuclear state.
Moon should persuade Beijing to maintain sanctions as this could be our last chance to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program. He must ask for a more proactive role from Beijing to influence Pyongyang.
At the same time, Moon must try to mend bilateral ties with China and Japan. Ties with Beijing were harmed by the standoff over the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system in South Korea. If Xi accepts Moon’s invitation to come to Seoul next year, the ice over its deployment could be thawed.
Talks with Abe could be equally challenging. Moon cannot expect to solve all the pending issues over rulings on wartime forced labor in one summit meeting. But if the meetings can build up trust or some kind of compromise, the stalemated lower-level talks could progress.
China and Japan are our most important neighbors, who are essential partners to ensure peace and stability in the region. They must put aside conflicts over past issues and set their gaze on the future. Moon must come back with improvements in ties with our neighbors and their backing to bring North Korea back to the path of dialogue.
JoongAng Sunday, Dec. 21, Page 34