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After Summit With U.S. and Japan, South Korea Seeks to Shore Up Ties With China Too

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South Korea’s ambassador to Japan said “high-level” talks are underway for a three-nation summit with China poised to happen this year, and it wouldn’t affect ties with the U.S.

Those discussions are going well, Yun Dukmin, Seoul’s envoy to Japan said in an interview. There may be a “Camp David effect” that prompted China to reach out to its neighbors, Yun said, adding that a summit with Beijing wouldn’t hurt relations with Washington after the historic meeting with the U.S. senior officials from the three Asian nations are set to meet in Seoul on Sept. 26.

South Korea is working to revive three-way summits among Japan and China that have stalled since 2019 due initially to the Covid-19 pandemic. But Beijing has been angered by President Joe Biden’s historic summit in August at the Camp David presidential retreat with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, saying it’s a deliberate attempt to sow discord among the Asian neighbors.

Read More: The U.S. Is Beefing Up Alliances Across Asia—But Don’t Expect an ‘Asian NATO’ Anytime Soon

“The relationship between Japan and South Korea has progressed so rapidly that it’s become an environment that China hasn’t experienced in the last 10 years or so,” Yun said on Wednesday. “It would be better for the stability of the region if the neighboring countries cooperate and get along well rather than confronting each other like this.”

Appointed to his post about two months after President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May 2022, Yun said ties between South Korea and Japan are starkly different from when he started. Relations were fraught due to a dispute over compensation for Korean workers during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula. In March, Yoon removed a roadblock in relations when Seoul dropped its demand that Japanese firms compensate Koreans conscripted to work at Japanese mines and factories, but would create its own fund for them​.

The breakthrough to end a feud that had disrupted ties on everything from trade to security drew praise from Biden, who’s been trying to convince the two U.S. allies to present a more united front against China and North Korea.

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Biden has sought support from partners to stymie Beijing’s access to advanced semiconductors. Japan restricted exports of some chipmaking tools, following similar moves by the U.S. and the Netherlands. South Korea has been a bit hesitant as major companies such as Samsung Electronics Co. and SK Hynix Inc. depend on China as a market and manufacturing site for their memory chips.

The ambassador said it may be just a matter of time before semiconductor makers in China move up the value chain and eventually surpass what’s made by South Korean giants in the country. He said South Korean mobile phone makers, department store operators and automobile firms have all seen their market share slide in China as the domestic industries advanced.

“We’re still very much dependent on China, but a surprising number of companies have moved out of China,” Yun said. “We can’t completely abandon the Chinese market, but overall, the Chinese market is not going to stay open continuously. So in that sense, these next few years are a very important time for Korea’s semiconductor companies.”

Meanwhile, relations with Japan have progressed very rapidly and this will cause a major shift in the regional strategic landscape, Yun said.

“When I first arrived here last year, the whole Japanese society was very, very cold toward Korea, to the point where I wondered if it was possible for them to be so cold,” he said. 

Yun is looking to use the current momentum to forge another declaration with Japan as they did a quarter century ago to lock in improved ties, which could keep trade flows stable in the face of political tensions.

South Korean companies are starting to invest in Japan again, he said. This includes small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as giants such as Samsung, which is looking at an R&D center in the greater Tokyo region.

Yun said security cooperation with Japan and the U.S. is set to expand as they face nuclear threats from the likes of North Korea. Biden has assured Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that the U.S. nuclear policy known as extended deterrence remains in place. The strategy refers to exerting a force strong enough that it convinces an adversary it can’t achieve its military and political goals through aggression.

Read More: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Is Giving a Once Pacifist Japan a More Assertive Role on the Global Stage

North Korea in the past few years has tested a barrage of missiles designed to hit South Korea and Japan, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to deliver a warhead to the U.S. mainland. That could raise some difficult questions for Washington, the ambassador said.

“There’s this question of whether or not the U.S. would retaliate against Pyongyang at the expense of New York if Tokyo or Seoul were attacked,” he said.

Yun also commented on other issues in the interview. On wastewater release from the Fukushima nuclear site, he said: “The Japanese prime minister also said in his meeting with our President that he would never interfere in any way that would compromise the safety of the Korean people.”

On tourism: “We are now talking increasing flights and resuming those flights between regional cities that were lost due to Covid. It’s taking a little longer, but the infrastructure is being replenished, so we are hoping that this congestion with Japan will improve.”

And on Kim Jong Un’s trip to Russia: “We’ll have to wait and see if it’s just a show or something substantial and I think it’s very politically motivated to take pictures and do things this way when in fact it’s something that can be done covertly without making a big deal about it.”

—With assistance from Isabel Reynolds and Sam Kim.

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