Li, Park agree to boost dialogue ahead of summit with Abe

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (right) shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on Oct 31, 2015.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye (right) shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on Oct 31, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Park Geun Hye agreed to strengthen dialogue on North Korea's nuclear programme and the reunification of the two Koreas in a meeting yesterday, ahead of a trilateral summit with Japan - the first in more than three years.

The two leaders also pledged to push for the ratification of their free trade deal - which has yet to be approved by the South Korean Parliament - and put it into effect by the end of the year.

Mr Li, who arrived in Seoul early yesterday, had a "frank" discussion with Ms Park, and they agreed to "further strengthen strategic-level communication", according to the presidential Blue House.

He said China hopes to boost ties with South Korea and push for peace and stability in North-east Asia by bolstering cooperation with both South Korea and Japan, according to Yonhap News Agency.

This marks the latest in a series of talks between Ms Park and China's leaders, in a sign of growing friendship between the two neighbours. Ms Park had also met Mr Li, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping, when she attended China's military parade in early September. This is despite concerns from South Korea's security ally, the United States, which views China's growing assertiveness with worry.

South Korea is not only dependent on China for trade and tourism - bilateral trade hit US$235.4 billion (S$330 billion) and a record 6.13 million Chinese tourists visited South Korea last year - but it also looks to its strongest Asian neighbour to clip the wings of a nuclear- armed North Korea.

But relations with Japan soured in 2012 because of territorial disputes and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's perceived attempts to deny Japan's war atrocities.

Mr Li, Ms Park and Mr Abe are expected to meet at the Blue House today and to issue a joint statement after. Separately, Ms Park will meet Mr Abe tomorrow, marking their first one-on-one meeting since Ms Park took office in 2013.

Experts say the resumption of the trilateral summit is in itself an accomplishment, but hopes are not high for any concrete outcomes. On the agenda are key regional and international issues, such as economic cooperation, North Korea's denuclearisation and territorial disputes.

And while Mr Li received a warm welcome yesterday, complete with a presidential dinner, the reception for Mr Abe, who will arrive only today, is expected to be rather cold, according to observers and local media reports.

Dr Bong Young Shik of The Asan Institute for Policy Studies anticipates the Park-Abe meeting to be tense, adding that "it speaks volumes that both sides agreed not to have a luncheon". He said: "It will be an example of a one-way street talk without any mutual effort to narrow the gap on issues."

In an interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Ms Park expressed hopes that the summit "will be a chance to set a goal for a solution" on the issue of compensation for South Korean women forced by Japan to become military sex slaves during World War II.

Mr Abe's stance has been that he stands by Japan's landmark apology in 1993 for the wartime sex slavery, but South Korea feels that he has not done enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Li, Park agree to boost dialogue ahead of summit with Abe'. Print Edition | Subscribe