© Pool/AFP Ahn Young-Joon(R-L) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida meet in Seoul on March 21, 2015
Seoul (AFP) – The foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan pledged to pave the way for a trilateral leadership summit as they met in Seoul on Saturday for the first time in nearly three years.
The talks were an effort to calm regional tensions stoked by territorial disputes and historical rows with roots in Japan’s colonisation of the Korean peninsula and occupation of parts of China before and during World War II.
In a joint statement, the three countries said they had agreed to set up a three-way summit of their respective leaders “at the earliest convenient time.”
They also declared their “firm opposition” to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula — a clear reference to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Started in 2007 as an annual event, the ministerial talks were last held in April 2012 before being suspended as relations went into a tailspin.
Their resumption marks a thaw of sorts that would be further underscored if a leadership summit could be set up later this year.
The last such summit took place in May 2012, and all three countries have appointed new leaders since then.
Lingering animosities, fuelled by ongoing sovereignty rows over island territories, have seen Beijing and Seoul maintain a frosty distance from Tokyo in recent years, hindering co-operation between the three Asian powers who collectively account for roughly 20 percent of global GDP.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have already held two fruitful bilateral summits.
But Park has refused to sit down one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while Xi has only managed a brief meeting with Abe on the sidelines of an APEC gathering in Beijing last year.
China and South Korea, whose ties are strong, feel Japan has failed to express sufficient remorse for its wartime past.
Both reacted furiously when, in December 2103, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Tokyo shrine that honours Japan’s war dead, including a number of senior war criminals.
The joint statement made only a glancing reference to those tensions, saying the three countries had agreed to strengthen cooperation “in the spirit of facing history squarely and advancing towards the future.”