China's top envoy visits Seoul
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi kicked off a two-day visit to Seoul Tuesday following North Korea's tests of long-range cruise missiles over the weekend, an issue also being addressed by nuclear envoys from South Korea, the United States and Japan meeting in Tokyo.
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Wang, also a Chinese state councilor, will hold talks Wednesday morning and are expected to discuss ways to bring Pyongyang back to dialogue after a collapse of denuclearization talks with the United States.
The North's state media reported Monday that Pyongyang tested "a strategic weapon of great significance" Saturday and Sunday. It tested missiles that flew 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), which also puts in range Tokyo.
Unlike ballistic missiles, North Korea is not explicitly barred from developing cruise missiles under United Nations Security Council resolutions. But the tests heightened tensions on the peninsula after a relatively toned down military parade celebrating North Korea's founding anniversary last Thursday.
In Tokyo, Noh Kyu-duk, South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, met with Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, and their Japanese counterpart, Takehiro Funakoshi, to discuss North Korea Tuesday.
The three countries showed subtle differences in their priorities, with Seoul focusing on the "Korean Peninsula peace process," Washington on "diplomatic engagement" and Tokyo on the North Korean "missile threat."
During the meeting, the U.S. nuclear envoy said he still hopes North Korea "will respond positively" to multiple offers by the United States to "meet without preconditions."
Kim stressed that the Joe Biden administration holds a responsibility to implement UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang and advocate human rights for North Koreans.
"To explore the potential for the diplomacy, the U.S. continues to reach out to Pyongyang to restart dialogue," said Kim at the start of the trilateral talks. "We harbor no hostile intent towards DPRK, and we're open to meeting with them without preconditions."
He referred to the acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim also emphasized American commitment to the security of South Korea and Japan, adding, "The recent developments in DPRK are a reminder of the importance of close communication and cooperation between the allies."
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported recently that North Korea appears to have resumed operation of a 5-megawatt reactor at its key Yongbyon nuclear complex in July, after no signs of activity since December 2018, another possible setback in engagement efforts.
Noh kicked off a three-day visit to Tokyo Sunday and also held separate bilateral talks with Kim Tuesday.
Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the three countries shared the need for stable management "taking into consideration the recent situation on the Korean Peninsula." They also discussed "cooperative measures for the early resumption of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula," stressing that "dialogue and diplomacy are urgent to achieve denuclearization."
The ministry added that South Korea and the United States in particular "held in-depth discussions on various ways to engage North Korea, including joint humanitarian cooperation projects and trust-building measures."
After the talks, Kim told reporters in Tokyo, "We are prepared to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization."
Kim said, "The United States supports the provision of humanitarian aid, consistent with international standards for access and monitoring to the most vulnerable North Koreans."
He added that the United States is ready to support "certain" inter-Korean humanitarian cooperation projects.
The three nuclear envoys last held trilateral talks in Seoul in June. Noh and Kim held two meetings just last month in Seoul and Washington. The two sides have been considering ways to engage Pyongyang, including humanitarian cooperation in such areas as infectious disease prevention, public health, clean drinking water and sanitation.
On a trip to Vietnam, Wang stressed Saturday that the two countries should avoid actions that magnify disputes in the South China Sea.
There is interest in what message Wang might have on the North Korea issue during his Seoul visit, including its response to the latest missiles tests. President Moon Jae-in was also set to meet with the Chinese foreign minister Wednesday.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics next February have been seen as a possible venue to reengage the North. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last week banned North Korea's National Olympic Committee through the end of 2022 for skipping the Tokyo Games this summer, putting a damper on the idea.
South Korea was the last leg of a six-day tour which also took Wang to Singapore and Cambodia.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]