By Kentaro Nakajima / Yomiuri Shimbun Seoul Bureau ChiefSEOUL — The word “trilateral” means having three sides, in reference to triangles, and in diplomatic parlance connotes the involvement of three countries. In Japan’s recent diplomacy, two trilateral relationships — the Japan-United States-South Korea and Japan-China-South Korea relationships — have become increasingly important.
On Sept. 21, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In held talks in New York, where the three were attending a U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Though Trump only took office in January and Moon in May, this was the trio’s second meeting following initial talks held in Germany in July.
The frequency of the meetings is noteworthy considering leaders of the three countries have held talks only eight times for 18 years since the first such conference in 1999. This reflects the growing seriousness of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, which was also the main agenda item during the initial 1999 meeting.
Triangles are inherently strong: If one side connecting two points weakens, the other two sides, whose lines originate from the third point, can support the overall structure.
With regard to the current Japan-U.S.-South Korea relationship, the side linking Moon and Trump is not especially stable.
Moon values dialogue, saying, “War must never break out again on the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump explicitly refuses to rule out military options. This divergence on North Korea policy is one of multiple factors behind the discord.
Moon, a human rights lawyer by trade, approaches all matters meticulously and values principle. Trump, on the other hand, can be broadminded when we see him in a positive light but unpredictable when regarded negatively.
The two leaders’ differing personalities seem to have further undermined their relationship.
As tension grows over North Korea, Abe has worked to stabilize the triangle. He has talked by phone to both Trump and Moon and tried to resolve the misunderstandings between the two presidents.
As such, he has sustained the trilateral framework through Japan-U.S. and Japan-South Korea sides. Though Abe appears not to get along with Moon, who takes a stern attitude toward Japan in matters such as the comfort women issue, sources close to both leaders say they do not have a bad impression of each other.
Their July talks held in Germany were described as amicable as they discussed a ferry route connecting Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe’s home prefecture, to Busan, South Korea, which is Moon’s home region.
When Moon irked Trump with the timing of his decision to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea while calling for more pressure on Pyongyang, Abe reportedly sympathized with Moon, saying, “I think [he did that] because he’s a good person.”
The Japan-China-South Korea summit talks initiated in 2008 represent the second important triangle.
All three sides of this arrangement face their own difficulties. Though summit talks are, in principle, to be held once a year, rotating among the three countries, talks have only been held six times thus far.
Japan aims to host the summit talks as the chair this year after a two-year hiatus.
As former South Korea President Park Geun-hye was removed from office without visiting Japan, Moon’s visit, if realized, would be the first to Japan by a South Korean president in six years. Reciprocal visits between the two leaders may be hard to resume at this stage, but it is hoped that trilateral summit talks will provide a more natural context for Moon to visit Japan.
Moreover, Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations have shown signs of improvement despite wavering ties between China and South Korea, who previously had a strong relationship.
In light of East Asia’s deepening instability, Japan’s role is increasingly vital in both triangles, which are an asset of Japan’s diplomacy.