North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the test of a multiple rocket launcher. File photo/Reuters
The spectre of new confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington hangs over meetings between China, Japan and South Korea this week, with growing risks North Korean actions could end an uneasy detente and upend recent diplomatic efforts.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping separately on Monday. They will then travel to the southwestern city of Chengdu for a trilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Though they are expected to discuss various economic matters, North Korea appears likely to dominate the agenda.
Pyongyang has grown increasingly frustrated that its halt of nuclear and long-range missile tests has not ended the crippling economic sanctions against it. It set a Dec. 31 deadline for the United States to make concessions, but Washington has been unmoved.
Some experts believe North Korea may be readying to test an intercontinental ballistic missile launch soon, which would likely end the 2018 agreement struck by its leader, Kim Jong Un, and US President Donald Trump.
"Safeguarding the stability and peace of the Korean Peninsula and pushing for a political solution to the Korean Peninsula issue are in the interests of China, Japan and South Korea," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui told reporters on Thursday at a briefing on the trilateral meetings.
US special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun met with two senior Chinese diplomats during his two-day visit to Beijing this week, following similar meeting in South Korea and Japan days earlier, as diplomats make last-ditch attempts to prevent new confrontation.
North Korea has not responded to his public call to resume dialogue, however.
"The silence, even after Biegun's speech in Seoul, makes me concerned," Jenny Town, managing editor at the North Korea monitoring website 38 North, said on Twitter.
China hosts the leaders of squabbling neighbours South Korea and Japan on Tuesday, flexing its diplomatic muscle with America’s two key military allies in Asia and seeking regional unity on how to deal with a belligerent North Korea.
The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea met in Beijing on Wednesday as they seek to encourage progress on North Korean denuclearisation.
Japan has raised its caution level about North Korea’s missile capability, saying in a defense report that the country resumed missile tests while taking no concrete denuclearization steps
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