June 27, 2022
SEOUL – The leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan will meet together for the first time in around five years on the sidelines of the upcoming NATO summit to discuss coordinated ways to address North Korea’s mounting threats, the South Korean presidential office announced Sunday.
But President Yoon Suk-yeol will not have bilateral face-to-face talks with his Japanese counterpart, although he plans to participate in a total of 14 meetings during the multilateral summit.
Yoon is scheduled to depart Seoul Monday afternoon to make his in-person debut on the multilateral diplomatic stage at the NATO leaders’ summit held from Wednesday to Thursday in Madrid, Spain.
The leaders of four Asia-Pacific countries — South Korea, Australia, Japan and New Zealand — have been invited to take part in the NATO summit for the first time as partners.
Yoon particularly aims to parlay the NATO summit into securing wide international support for his government’s approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, the South Korean presidential office said on Sunday.
Yoon plans to underscore South Korea’s commitment to achieving North Korea’s denuclearization in his 3-minute speech delivered during a joint session with NATO members and partner nations on Wednesday.
First trilateral summit in 5 years
The NATO summit will also serve as a venue for a trilateral summit between Yoon, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, where North Korea issues will be discussed as the main topic.
The three-way summit is currently scheduled to be held on Wednesday afternoon. The occasion will be the first meeting of the leaders of the three countries since September 2017, when the trilateral summit was held on the sidelines of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.
“Given that the meeting will take place four years and nine months after the last one, we expect to have an in-depth discussion on the regional security situation,” South Korea’s senior presidential official said on Sunday during a closed-door briefing, adding that the trilateral summit will continue up to 30 minutes due to a tight schedule.
The trilateral talks would focus on discussing ways to enhance security cooperation to handle the North Korean nuclear issue, the South Korean presidential office explained during a briefing last week.
The summit will be held at a critical juncture when South Korea and the United States have said North Korea could conduct a nuclear test at any time at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. North Korea has launched 31 ballistic missiles in just less than six months this year, surpassing the record of 25 in 2019.
The rare trilateral summit will also come weeks after the South Korean, US, and Japanese defense chiefs in mid-June agreed to regularize trilateral exercises and come up with further trilateral actions to deter North Korea’s missile threats during the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit in Singapore.
No plans for S.Korea-Japan bilateral summit
But Yoon and Kishida will not have separate face-to-face talks, including casual pull-aside meetings, during the NATO summit despite unresolved pending issues, the presidential official confirmed Sunday.
The presidential official explained that the meeting between the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers should precede to set agenda topics for the bilateral summit. The foreign ministerial meeting has been postponed mainly due to Japan’s triennial election, when half of the seats in the 248-member upper house will be selected on July 10.
At this juncture, there are no topics for the South Korean and Japanese leaders to discuss even during a casual pull-aside meeting as the two countries have not yet held working-level talks on historical and territorial disputes, the official added.
Japan’s upcoming upper house election appears to be the key barrier for South Korea and Japan to break the longstanding stalemate.
South Korea and Japan have concerns about whether the two countries can “focus on directly and explicitly discussing critical issues at a meeting held in a third country on the sidelines of the summit and at a sensitive time,” the presidential office also explained last week.
But Yoon and Kishida are expected to interact several times on the occasion of the trilateral summit between South Korea, the US and Japan, the NATO summit meeting, and the Royal Gala Dinner hosted by Spanish King Felipe VI.
There is also a slight chance that a quadrilateral summit among the leaders of South Korea, Australia, Japan and New Zealand will take place on the margins of the NATO summit, the South Korean presidential office said Sunday.
Bilateral meetings with NATO members
In addition, Yoon is set to hold bilateral talks with leaders from nine countries at the NATO summit to discuss a broad range of economic and security issues such as exporting nuclear reactors and weapons and building a secure chip supply chain, the South Korean presidential office said last week.
The South Korean president is expected to make an effort to win bids to construct nuclear plants during his meeting with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Poland and the Netherlands.
Yoon will also seek to expand chip cooperation to strengthen the semiconductor supply chain in his bilateral talks with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest memory chip maker, is working to secure additional extreme ultraviolet or EUV lithography equipment produced by Dutch manufacturer ASML Holding NV. The equipment is essential in producing the advanced processor chips that are used today.
Yoon and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will also combine efforts to figure out ways to expand coordination in a green economy, green hydrogen and renewable energy.
In addition, Yoon plans to discuss arms exports to Poland in his meeting with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Poland, Ukraine’s closest neighbor, has called on South Korea to lend support to replenish its weapons stocks sent to the war-torn country by accelerating and expanding the export of South Korea-produced weapons such as K2 Black Panther tanks and K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers.
But an unnamed senior official last week said the Yoon government‘s basic stance is not to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine. Instead, the Yoon government will announce additional humanitarian aid worth $50 million to Ukraine at the NATO summit, where 30 members plan to discuss ways to provide sustaining, longer-term support for Ukraine as Russia’s invasion has continued for more than four months.
Other non-members such as Sweden, Finland, Ukraine and Georgia will also attend the crucial NATO summit, which will discuss a wide range of security issues, including Russia’s armed invasion of Ukraine and a new roadmap for the transatlantic alliance.