BEIJING--A joint declaration issued at the trilateral summit here deleted all references to North Korea and its nuclear program after Japan and South Korea objected to China’s “soft” wording about the country, sources said.
Tsuyoshi Saito, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary who accompanied Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Beijing, was asked by reporters on May 14 if it was "regrettable" that North Korea was not mentioned in the joint declaration.
"I believe it is better to refrain from using the expression ‘regrettable,’" Saito said.
The primary goals for Noda in his meetings with China and South Korea were to promote negotiations on a free-trade agreement as well as agree on measures to deal with North Korea.
Noda accomplished his FTA task, but he had to endure sharp comments about the Senkaku Islands and the Uighur ethnic minority during his trip to China. And the Japanese prime minister came home with a joint declaration containing no references to North Korea.
Noda, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, reached an agreement on the morning of May 13 to cooperate in asking North Korea to refrain from conducting a nuclear test.
But when it came time to hammer out wording in the joint declaration among officials of the three nations, the process was far from smooth.
The initial draft presented by China as host nation mentioned North Korea. However, according to a source in the delegation accompanying Noda, "Japan and South Korea could not accept the soft expressions used."
Because further work was required, no announcement of the joint declaration was made on May 13, and squabbling continued on May 14.
In the end, Japan and South Korea conceded to China because, as one Japanese government source said, "It would not have been good to issue a mistaken message to North Korea by including weak wording in the declaration."
The announcement of the declaration was made shortly before Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Noda and Lee on May 14.
"It is impossible to include every item discussed by the leaders of the three nations in the declaration," Luo Zhaohui, the director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Department of Asian Affairs, said at a May 14 news conference.
However, a researcher at a think tank affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, "There was likely the judgment that transmitting a message in the form of a joint declaration in which Japan, China and South Korea were in agreement would not have been to the benefit of regional stability."
China obviously did not want to do anything that could have prompted North Korea to go ahead with a nuclear test. If that test had been conducted, it would have been difficult for China to accept an early visit by Kim Jong Un, who took over as North Korean leader following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, last year.
At the same time, Wen said in the May 13 meeting, "We will continue with our efforts to seek self-restraint on the part of North Korea and will try to guide North Korea."
Wen later said in a joint news conference, "The urgent matter is to prevent an escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
A high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official noted that Wen used much stronger language than in the past.
And a senior official in the South Korean presidential office said of Beijing's stance: "There is a need to take into consideration the host nation. There was no major difference between South Korea and China regarding North Korea."
Still, it is highly unusual for a joint declaration issued after a meeting of the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea to contain no mention of North Korea.
At a meeting in Tokyo in May 2011, the declaration touched upon concerns about North Korea's uranium enrichment program. Two years ago, when the three leaders met in Jeju island in South Korea, the declaration said, "The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will contribute to permanent peace and stability in Northeast Asia."
The omission of any reference to North Korea in the latest declaration led a Japanese government official to say on May 14: "The free trade agreement and North Korea were the two major themes. Naturally, severe criticism will likely arise."
(This article was written by Toru Higashioka and Kim Soonhi.)
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