On August 18th, an unprecedented summit unfolded at Camp David where the leaders of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States, and Japan convened. The symbolic importance of the first ever stand-alone meeting and the historic location made a profound impact. The substantive nature of the summit also heralds the commencement of a “new era of trilateral partnership.” Now, however, it is imperative to meticulously scrutinize how we got here, the contents and outcomes elucidated within a joint statement dubbed “The Spirit of Camp David,” along with separate “Camp David Principles” and “Commitment to Consult,” and the tasks that lie ahead.
A New Trajectory of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Government
Since the inauguration of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, a discernible enhancement in Korea-Japan relations has materialized, thereby precipitating a commensurate momentum in security cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan. The Yoon administration embarked on a proactive quest to engender pragmatic resolutions to the vexing issue of Korean victims of forced labor—a paramount concern within the Korea-Japan context. This endeavor was encapsulated through a Korea-Japan summit convened on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Cambodia on November 2022. Remarkably, regular diplomacy was reinstated in March 2023 after a hiatus of 12 years, ushering in the resurgence of economic security dialogues, strategic dialogues at the vice-ministerial level, the normalization of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), alongside reenergized security cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
The G7 summit held in Hiroshima in May 2023 bore testament to the commitment of the three countries to multifaceted cooperation. Subsequent deliberations revolved around elevating the contours of collaboration to an unprecedented level, encompassing cooperation vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, economic security imperatives, and respective Indo-Pacific strategies.
Concomitantly, defense authorities exhibited alacrity in their responses. In April 2023, the three countries convened a vice-ministerial security dialogue, the Defense Trilateral Talks (DTT), to delineate specific focal points for security collaboration. Military exercises involving three countries have manifested. Notably, the Pacific Dragon, a multilateral exercise in August 2022, incorporated missile detection and warning drills. Missile defense exercises were held in October 2022, February, April, and July 2023, as were anti-submarine drills in September 2022 and April 2023. The accord between the defense ministers of these countries in June 2023 to establish an annual plan for exercises bore testimony to their determination to institute pragmatic collaborative frameworks.
The initiatives undertaken by the Yoon administration, as underscored at the Camp David press briefing, epitomize resolute strides toward forward-looking diplomacy in the face of domestic political difficulties. The momentum of these efforts was invigorated through the robust expectations and support by the Biden administration for trilateral cooperation, reciprocated by Kishida’s cabinet—a manifestation of the audacious diplomacy underpinning the Yoon government.
Significance of the Camp David Summit
Preceding the summit, there was a concerted emphasis by the respective administrations to build diplomatic momentum. A senior U.S. official articulated that the summit focused on “institutionalizing, deepening and thickening the habits of cooperation.” And during a press briefing subsequent to the summit, the three leaders expressed satisfaction with the outcomes. The media has been filled with a myriad of appraisals and analyses, alongside numerous seminars convened to evaluate the summit within each nation. Korean defense scholars, though, offer a distinct perspective on the meaning and accomplishments of this summit, which can be broken down in the following areas:
While the three countries concur in their commitment to democratic norms, a liberal order, and shared values, nuanced distinctions persist in threat perceptions and the configuration and priorities of national interests. In this context, this summit marked the inception of a trilateral collaboration, characterized by the resolution to overcome divergent perceptions and align towards a future-oriented cooperative trajectory. The forthcoming trajectory of multidimensional cooperation hinges upon a deliberative assessment of the domains and modalities of collaboration, stemming from an acknowledgment of regional challenges, provocations, and threats that can only be addressed through concerted cooperation.
The Next Steps to Strengthen Trilateral Cooperation
The three leaders have established a new, unprecedented baseline for future trilateral relations, which is premised upon shared (or at least increasingly aligned) threat perceptions, new institutional frameworks, and common values. Furthermore, the trilateral framework is underpinned for both Seoul and Tokyo by their common alliances with Washington. Considering this distinctive context, elucidation of pivotal measures for strengthening this triangular cooperation is in order:
Furthermore, the North Korea-China-Russia triangle warrants consideration, wherein cooperative architectures begin with a lucid apprehension of threats. Last month, during North Korea’s Victory Day parade, senior defense officials from China and Russia attended, with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu notably engaging in discussions encompassing topics such as joint military exercises between North Korea and Russia and the transfer of Russian nuclear and missile technologies. Enhancing the structure of the security frameworks among the trilateral partnership is indeed important. However, it is equally essential to exercise a strategic balance, avoiding unnecessary provocation of counterparts.
While concerns persist within Korea about the substantive yield vis-à-vis the United States and Japan, it is crucial to underscore that diplomacy within the ambit of allies and partners differs markedly from negotiations with adversarial entities designed to forestall immediate crises. Furthermore, such diplomacy diverges from trade negotiations that prioritize the quantifiable exchange of goods and services. Shared values and orientations serve to underscore alignment, with a mutual expectation of long-term national interest advancement through cooperative synergies, rather than expedient quid pro quo. The “Spirit of Camp David” distinctly pledged that the three countries would make the Indo-Pacific “thriving, connected, resilient, stable, and secure.”
Institutionalizing the vision pronounced by the three leaders requires navigating both international and domestic critique and skepticism at each juncture. Primarily, an enduring belief of this collaboration must resonate within the parties themselves. Consequently, the next steps will epitomize the spirit and principles encapsulated at Camp David through concrete action and will set the course for successful manifestation.
Hanbyeol Sohn is an associate professor in the Department of Military Strategy at the Korea National Defense University (KNDU) and Director, Center for Military Strategy in the Research Institute for National Security Affairs (RINSA). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from U.S. Pacific Fleet’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kevin A. Flinn.