China hosts Japan, South Korea with eyes on nuclear North


CHENGDU, CHINA - China hosted the leaders of squabbling neighbors South Korea and Japan for their first meeting in over a year 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 gathering in the southwestern city of Chengdu was held with the clock ticking on a threatened "Christmas gift" from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that could reignite global tensions over its nuclear program.

Kim has promised the unidentified "gift" -- which analysts and American officials believe could be a provocative missile test -- if the United States does not make concessions in their nuclear talks by the end of the year.

The gathering also featured the first bilateral meeting between South Korea's Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 15 months.

Ties between their two nations have hit rock bottom in recent months over trade issues and other disputes related to decades of bitter wrangling over Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.

The United States has frequently urged its two allies to bury the hatchet -- worried that their poor relations were complicating diplomacy in Asia -- although it has held off on direct mediation.

China is appearing to fill that void with the Chengdu event.

"As the region's major power, China hopes to show its diplomatic presence to the world by bringing the Japanese and South Korean leaders to the same table," Haruko Satoh, professor and expert on Chinese politics at Osaka University, told AFP.

At separate lead-up meetings in Beijing on Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Moon and Abe both spoke of China's diplomatic heft in the region.

Before leaving for China, Abe told reporters that links with Seoul remained "severe", but said the Chengdu meeting was important given the regional issues at stake.

Abe and Moon were photographed smiling and shaking hands during the meeting.

The relationship between Japan and South Korea is overshadowed by the 35 years of brutal colonization by the Japanese -- including the use of sex slaves and forced labor -- that is still bitterly resented today. -AFP