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The Peninsula

Camp David and the New Normal of U.S.-Japan-Korea Trilateralism

Published September 5, 2023
Category: South Korea

In August, President Yoon Suk Yeol and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio held their first standalone U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral summit with President Joe Biden. At the conclusion of this historic meeting, the leaders unveiled the “Spirit of Camp David” which described their desire to advanced closer trilateral coordination to address regional and global challenges. “We’ve laid in place a long-term structure for a relationship that will last and have a phenomenal impact not just in Asia, but around the world,” said President Biden at a joint press conference. Although the vision outlined at Camp David has significant potential to greatly advance U.S.-Japan-Korea objectives, there remain significant obstacles to its success.

The main thrust of the agreements reached at Camp David is strengthening cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and Korea, for both government as well as the broader public. The first section of the fact sheet released by the White House focuses on “High-Level Trilateral Consultations,” which describes their intention to hold not just regular leader summits, but also separate meetings between their respective national security advisors, foreign, and defense ministers, along with an annual  commerce ministers meeting. They also announced the desire to hold a trilateral youth summit to be held as early as next year. More broadly, the U.S., Japan, and Korea said they would coordinate their efforts to engage ASEAN and Pacific Island states in the areas of financial development, maritime security, and humanitarian relief. Speaking after the summit at CSIS, National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said that “there is a recognition…that on many issues, we should get in the habit of consulting more directly…on issues that affect our immediate or our collective security.”

Much ink has been spilled on the second section on “Strengthening Security Cooperation.” To deepen their security cooperation efforts, the U.S., Japan, and Korea identified ballistic missile defense and North Korean cyber activities as two areas for greater focus. They also expressed an intention to hold larger exercises with participants from all services. Despite Chinese and North Korean criticisms of an emerging trilateral security alliance, allied officials are adamant that this is not the case. The agreements reached at Camp David are more focused on coordinating and sharing information on common objectives. “It’s really just a form of cooperation,” said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Luke Deckard, who handles Japan affairs for the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs. Speaking at an event hosted by KEI and the Mansfield Foundation, he also said that the Spirit of Camp David agreement did not require either Japan or Korea to come to the other’s aid, as a real treaty alliance would obligate. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Lt. Col. Deckard. “I think we’re just on the cooperate, communicate, and consult level.”

However, just as important are the economic components of the agreements focused on growth and stability.  In addition to highlighting the importance of promoting women’s participation in the economy, the leaders announced the creation of a warning system designed to identify disruptions in the supply chains of critical goods and resources. They also emphasized the need to coordinate research conducted between their respective national laboratories, and standards for emerging technology. Also speaking at CSIS, Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Cho Hyun-dong said that the U.S., Japan, and Korea account for nearly a third of global GDP, and lead in the manufacturing of critical technologies like semiconductors and EV batteries, among other things. “The deeper cooperation among three countries will…facilitate the more resilient and safe…global supply chain, which is, I think, benefits for all,” he said.

The reception by the South Korean public was relatively cool to the summit at Camp David. In a recent public opinion poll by Realmeter, President Yoon’s approval rating rose two points to 37.6%. The conservative Chosun Ilbo noted that the economic framework coming out of Camp David could have a positive effect on Korea’s economic security. “Trilateral cooperation is essential at a time when the three countries are striving to secure strategic and future energy resources,” the paper said in an editorial shortly after the summit. Another editorial published a few days later added that research and development of emerging technologies with the U.S. and Japan was a key area the government should focus on as they implement the agreement. “Now that the new framework has been created, the Korean government must draw up detailed plans to elicit private-sector investment in those areas, nurture experts and provide the necessary support,” it said.

On the other hand, the liberal The Hankyoreh raised concerns about the security implications of the agreements. The paper interviewed Dr. Moon Chung-in, a former aide to Moon Jae-in, who noted that the summit was viewed differently by progressives and liberals. “Korea has made considerable concessions, gained little, and taken on considerable security risks,” he told the paper. “So the cost-benefit analysis for the three countries is quite lopsided.” Further afield, The Korea Times criticized the Yoon administration against deeper cooperation with Japan, given its failure to atone for past transgressions towards Korea. The paper noted Japan’s history of invading the Korean Peninsula, and suggested that Japan still desires to “civilize a barbaric neighbor.” The paper warned in an editorial that “if America wants to continue trilateral cooperation in this part of the world against China and Russia, it must first rectify historical wrongs by forcing Japan to change its mind and act.”

No matter how earnest allied officials may be, it remains to be seen how these objectives will fare going forward. Speaking at KEI, Dr. Sayuri Romei, Associate Director of Programs at the Mansfield Foundation, observed that the polarized politics in the U.S., Japan, and Korea complicate the longevity of the Camp David agreements. “I think the biggest threat to sustaining this Japan-South Korea partnership is the domestic public in each of the countries, including the U.S.,” she said. As democracies, it is only a matter of time before each of the leaders are replaced. Donald Trump could return to the White House and bring back his America First agenda. Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung has accused Japan of starting a “Second Pacific War.” When Takaichi Sanae announced her bid to lead the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan two years ago, she insisted that it was her “freedom of religion” to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. While such a trifecta may be unlikely, the Spirit of Camp David is built on a foundation of the leaders currently in power.

Administrative officials highlight its people-to-people initiatives as a way to ensure the longevity of the Spirit of Camp David. By expanding and regularizing exchanges between the U.S., Japan, and Korea, they hope to nurture a new generation of citizens that have first-hand experience of working with their counterparts. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emmanuel said at an event ahead of the summit at the Brookings Institution that the goal is to establish a “new normal,” such that “no one country or no one future leader rolls the rock back down the hill.”

But it’s worth noting that a history of cooperation is not foolproof insulation for sustained cooperation. While there have been improvements amid the larger bilateral warming, close Korea-Japan security cooperation was severely derailed after the 2018 radar lock-on incident, when a Japanese Air Self Defense aircraft was targeted by a Korean Navy ship. Building people-to-people ties across a variety of government ministries, industries, and social groups will expand the number of people with positive experiences with their counterparts. But it may still be vulnerable to broader currents in the domestic sphere.

Given these challenges, it is imperative President Yoon explain to his domestic audience why he signed onto the Camp David agreements and how they will benefit Korea. He can do this by building broader public support for these measures. An editorial by the Korea JoongAng Daily said that the creation of an ambassador with a dedicated portfolio covering the Indo-Pacific would be a step in the right direction. “The government and the governing People Power Party must persuade opposition parties and the general public to support his crusade,” the paper said. “To prove the efficacy of the spirit of Camp David and sustain it, the government must come up with convincing follow-up measures.”

Although it is still early to start planning the next trilateral summit, media reports suggest that Korea is interested in hosting it. In order for that meeting to find success and continue the momentum of the Camp David summit, President Yoon must demonstrate the importance of trilateral U.S.-Japan-Korea cooperation to the public.

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from White House X account.

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