China, Japan and South Korea highlight unity amid North Korea moves

TOKYO (Reuters) - China, Japan and South Korea agreed on Wednesday to cooperate in seeking the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying recent positive momentum must be matched by “concrete action” by North Korea.

North Korea, which has been pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, figured prominently in talks between the three leaders in Tokyo after South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s historic meeting last month with the North’s Kim Jong Un.

Kim is expected to have a summit soon with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Leaders of the three Asian powers, whose ties have been strained by territorial and historical disputes, also touched on economics in the face of U.S. trade pressure on China and Japan.

Abe praised efforts by Moon and China to engage North Korea and said further efforts on denuclearisation were essential.

“We must take the recent momentum towards denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula and towards peace and security in Northeast Asia, and, cooperating even further with international society, make sure this is linked to concrete action by North Korea,” Abe told a news conference after the meeting.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also attended the three-way summit, which was last held in Seoul in 2015.

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Moon said the three countries agreed to highlight unity as the two Koreas moved towards a permanent peace settlement.

“Above all, we reached the consensus that complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, a permanent peace settlement and improvement of South-North relations is very important for peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia,” Moon said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.

In talks with Moon later on Wednesday, Abe expressed Japan’s concern that pressure on North Korea might be lifted too early as a “reward” for its shutting down its nuclear test site or halting missile launches.

Abe called for additional, specific action, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office said in a Tokyo briefing.

Moon assured Abe that no such steps would be taken without conferring with the United Nations, the United States and others.

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Trump’s trade pressure on China and Japan, the world’s second and third-largest economies, appeared to have had an impact as Li urged swifter discussions on regional free trade deals, such as a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership backed by Beijing.

“We are all beneficiaries of free trade and even though various issues have emerged, these should not stand in the way,” Li said. “Through actual behavior, let’s show that we three nations support engaging in free trade.”

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Before a meeting as part of Li’s state visit to Japan - the first such visit by a Chinese premier since 2010 - Abe said he wanted to raise bilateral ties to a new level and visit China later this year.

After their talk, Abe and Li oversaw the signing of an agreement to set up a security hotline to defuse possible maritime incidents that could spark tensions.

The pact, a decade in the making, also provides for regular meetings between defense officials and a mechanism for their naval vessels to communicate at sea to avert maritime incidents.

In remarks to journalists, both men hailed warming ties between their countries with Li saying better relations between them was contributing to global stability and development.

Diplomatic relations between the two nations, clouded by Japan’s occupation of parts of China before and during World War Two, have gradually improved after deteriorating sharply in 2012, when Tokyo nationalized a cluster of disputed East China Sea islets that China also claims.

As the meeting’s host, Abe has won an opportunity to project himself in a leadership role and move beyond domestic woes such as suspected cronyism scandals, falling support rates and calls for his finance minister to quit.

Japan fears it may be left out of North Korean negotiations, with Abe and Kim yet to set up a summit.

In comments aimed at a domestic audience, Abe said Japan would normalize ties with North Korea if the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang to train spies, a key plank of his political platform, was comprehensively resolved.

Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul, Writing by Elaine Lies and Malcolm Foster; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie