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North Korea sanctions not on agenda for Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono during Hong Kong visit

Source tells the Post that city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor took item off the table for their official meeting on Sunday

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 7:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 12:08pm

Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono begins a two-day visit to Hong Kong on Saturday, but North Korean sanctions will not be on the agenda for discussion after the city’s leader rejected the idea, according to a source.

Kono had intended to discuss the city’s implementation of sanctions imposed on North Korea, including ways of stepping up inspection of ships, among other issues, but the Hong Kong government source told the Post that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had taken it off the table for their official meeting on Sunday.

Under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong relies on Beijing to handle matters of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

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At the end of last month, the Japanese government published new evidence of North Korean vessels engaged in ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas, a violation of a United Nations Security Council ban. Photographs showed a vessel flying a Maldives flag – but owned by a Hong Kong company – transferring what was believed to be oil to a North Korean ship.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported this week that Kono would visit the city to discuss the enforcement of sanctions on Pyongyang, ahead of a North-South summit next month and US President Donald Trump’s possible meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime before the end of May.

“North Korea won’t be on the agenda. It’s a foreign relations issue. They know that we won’t discuss this,” the source said.

It is understood the agreed agenda will focus on other economic and trade issues, while Kono is also expected to ask the city’s government to lift restrictions on Japanese food imports imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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On Friday, a Japanese ministry of foreign affairs official seemed to be unaware about the Hong Kong’s official’s unwillingness to discuss North Korean issues. “We think that Hong Kong’s location is very important in terms of the strict implementation of the UN resolutions … Mr Kono will discuss this issue with Hong Kong officials and ask them to continue abiding by those resolutions,” he said on a briefing with journalists in Tokyo.

“It’s a good occasion for us to talk about North Korea … Hong Kong is a very important player in terms of putting more pressure [on] North Korea,” the official said.

Hong Kong is a very important player in terms of putting more pressure [on] North Korea
Japanese foreign affairs ministry

The Japanese official said that he had the impression that Hong Kong government was “now serious about implementing those resolutions”. He added that Kono could help officials in Hong Kong to better understand the North Korean issue.

The same source in Tokyo said that Beijing was aware of this “rare visit” by a Japanese official to Hong Kong, noting that their reaction had been “very positive”.

When asked about the political tensions in Hong Kong, he noted the importance of a free market under “one country, two systems”. But he said that democracy could help Hong Kong to continue to be a reference point in the region. “I suppose that Mr Kono will have a chance to discuss this aspect with Carrie Lam and Andrew Leung [Kwan-yuen],” referring to the Legislative Council president.

The official said that he hoped Japanese companies could expand business both in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and mainland China. He also said Japan was concerned about a potential trade war between the US and China. “In that sense we would like to have more cross-border communication with the US and with China, if necessary,” the official said.

Kono is expected to meetLeung on Saturday, as well as members of the city’s Japanese community.

The visit to Hong Kong was initiated by Tokyo, according to the Hong Kong-based source.

The Chief Executive’s Office confirmed that Lam would meet Kono, but did not comment on agenda for discussion.

Japan has shown increasing national security concerns over tensions on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear and missile capacity.

“Japan has an important role to play in resolving the dispute through maintaining and enforcing sanctions itself, as well as applying diplomatic pressure and persuasion on other governments to do the same,” said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for North East Asia with the International Crisis Group. “Japan may be concerned about Hong Kong being used for business operations or transshipments that violate sanctions.”

UN reports in recent weeks said Hong Kong companies were being used as fronts for North Korean businesses. Last month the US slapped sanctions on nine companies outside North Korea that were working on Pyongyang’s behalf. Two were based in mainland China and five in Hong Kong.

Steve Chung Lok-wai, an expert in Korean affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted the timing of the visit. “Japan hopes to maintain the pressure until North Korea agrees on denuclearisation, making sure that they will not go through back doors and other channels to finance their programme,” he said.

Chung added it was important for nations and regions to collaborate on this matter.

‘Put words into action’: China urges Japan to get ties back on track

“Japan is working on consolidating efforts and preparing ground for the upcoming meetings [regarding North Korea],” he said.

Kono’s visit also comes at a time when relations between Japan and China seem to be improving.

Premier Li Keqiang said this week he was considering attending the China-Japan-South Korea leaders’ summit and paying an official visit to Japan in the first half of this year.