South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan left for quake-ravaged Japan on Saturday for annual three-way cooperation talks with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts that were overshadowed by deepening fears of a potential nuclear disaster following the already-devastating earthquake and tsunami.
The one-day meeting among Kim, Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the ancient city of Kyoto was meant to lay the groundwork for this year's summit of the three countries and discuss North Korea, regional issues and other matters of cooperation.
But the annual gathering, the fifth since 2007, is expected to be overshadowed by last week's massive quake and tsunami that wreaked havoc on the coastal regions in northeastern Japan. By official count, more than 15,000 people are dead or missing, and the toll is expected to climb.
Japan has also been struggling to bring a damaged nuclear power plant under control as radiation levels from the facility in Fukushima, some 250 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, rose following a series of explosions, fueling fears of a nuclear disaster.
Emergency workers have struggled to cool down nuclear reactors and fuel rods at the plant.
In Saturday's talks, the three top diplomats are expected to offer condolences to the victims and discuss ways to strengthen cooperation in disaster management and nuclear safety in consideration of the difficult situation that Japan faces, a government source said.
The ministers also plan to discuss the agenda for this year's summit of the three countries, set for May. Other topics up for discussion include North Korea, including how to deal with Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program and ways to reopen the stalled six-party nuclear talks.
But prospects for progress on the nuclear issue are not high because of differences in their positions. South Korea is seeking to get the U.N. Security Council to adopt a presidential statement condemning the uranium program, but China opposes the move over concern it could aggravate tensions.
Beijing claims the matter should be discussed after restarting the six-party talks.
Ahead of the three-way talks, the ministers will hold bilateral meetings with each other.
Kim's talks with Matsumoto will be the first time that the two have met since the Japanese minister took office earlier this month after his predecessor Seiji Maehara resigned over allegations of illegal political donations.
The quake is expected to dominate the meeting between Kim and Matsumoto.
South Korea, which has pledged all possible assistance to Japan, was one of the first countries to send rescue workers. A 107-member team of rescue specialists have searched the worst-hit regions jointly with Japanese police for survivors from the disaster.
An increasing number of ordinary South Koreans and celebrities have also expressed sympathy and offered donations voluntarily, setting aside hard feelings left over from Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45.
On Saturday, South Korea was to send about 6,000 blankets and 100 tons of mineral water in relief supplies to help victims in Japan. The supplies were put together from government reserves and donations from local governments and the private sector.
North Korea is expected to dominate Kim's meeting with Chinese Minister Yang. But their discussions on Saturday are not expected to go deep into the issue because the two are also scheduled to hold full-scale talks when Kim visits Beijing later this month.
After wrapping up a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings, the ministers plan to hold a joint news conference in the late afternoon before having dinner together, hosted by the Japanese minister.
This week's talks had originally been scheduled for two days, including some friendship events on Sunday. But the additional events have been called off since the disaster.
The three countries have held a foreign ministers' meeting every year since 2007. (Yonhap News)