SEOUL, South Korea – Meeting for the first time in three years, the foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan agreed Saturday to work together to improve ties strained by historical and territorial issues and restore trilateral summit talks among their leaders.
Anti-Japan sentiments in South Korea and China have grown sharply in recent years over what is seen as Tokyo's push to obscure Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula and invasion of China in the first half of the 20th century. Three-way talks among the countries' top diplomats had been subsequently suspended, and there has been no trilateral meeting of the countries' leaders since 2012.
The foreign ministers said in a joint statement after Saturday's meeting in Seoul that they would make efforts to resume trilateral summit talks "at the earliest convenient time for the three countries."
"The three foreign ministers, based on the spirit of looking squarely at history and moving forward to the future, have agreed to make joint efforts to properly resolve related issues, improve bilateral ties and strengthen trilateral cooperation," South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a joint news conference.
Despite the agreement, it remains to be seen whether the summit talks can be realized anytime soon.
"The problems related to history are not about the past, but are about the present," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the news conference. He said the countries should not allow their relations to be hurt further by historical issues.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida avoided talking about contentious issues during the news conference.
Analysts say getting the summit talks back on track is crucial to prompting more high-profile bilateral talks where sensitive issues can be discussed.
Since taking office in early 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has never held official one-on-one talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although U.S. President Barack Obama brought them together for a three-way meeting last year in The Hague.
Chinese President Xi Jinping met Abe last November on the sidelines of a regional conference that Beijing hosted in their first meeting since both took power in late 2012, but the meeting ended without a breakthrough. Park and Xi have met five times.
Despite their harsh history, the three countries are closely linked economically, with China the biggest trading partner of both South Korea and Japan. They are also members of now-stalled regional disarmament talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
During Saturday's meeting, the three foreign ministers agreed to continue their efforts to restart the nuclear disarmament talks to produce substantial progress in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The rifts among the three nations have been a source of concern for the United States, which wants a stronger alliance with its key allies South Korea and Japan to better cope with a rising China and the increasing nuclear threats from North Korea.
Japan and South Korea host 80,000 U.S. troops, the core of America's military presence in the Asia-Pacific, while China is the main backer of South Korea's chief rival, North Korea.