When the leaders of Japan and South Korea join President Joe Biden at Camp David on August 18, it will cap a year of remarkable progress in bringing relations in the region back from the depths of dysfunction.
The summit will showcase the attempts by the Biden administration to institutionalize trilateral security cooperation – tying the three countries into a pseudo-alliance built on intelligence sharing, missile defense, cybersecurity and strengthened nuclear deterrence.
For American security officials, these steps have gained fresh urgency from the tightening of another alliance – between North Korea, China and Russia. In an eerie echo of the Korean War, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a highly symbolic visit to Pyongyang in late July, along with a senior Chinese Communist Party official.
The irony is that Moscow is now seeking arms from North Korea, rather than providing them. But in any case, the Kim Jong-un regime now feels emboldened, marrying new missile tests with bombastic threats.
The Pyongyang axis was perhaps also energized by the efforts of the U.S. to shore up its pledge of nuclear deterrence – so-called “extended deterrence” – to both Seoul and Tokyo.
Before the Shoigu visit, the U.S. and South Korea convened the first official meeting of a new Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) in Seoul, attended by senior U.S. national security official Kurt Campbell, designed to reassure Koreans of the American pledge to come to their defense and deter a North Korean nuclear attack. The meeting was dramatized by the visit of an American nuclear missile-armed submarine to South Korea, the first since 1981.
The Camp David summit will offer some new icing on the trilateral cake that has been baking for the past year. That will take the form of a joint declaration, still under negotiation, that will set out a shared security perception and interests, with some reference to North Korea and China, as well as the war in Ukraine. An agreement on mutual consultation in case of crisis and the convening of annual trilateral summits is also on the agenda. Economic security issues like cooperation on semiconductors and technology ties to China will also be part of the summit.
But this is short of what the Americans originally had on the agenda.
The Americans want to create a trilateral extended deterrence dialogue – broadening in effect the NCG created with South Korea. But senior American and Korean officials in Washington told this writer that these plans were opposed by both the Japanese and Korean governments.
Japanese officials are wary of any multilateral nuclear discussions, which are considered beyond the political limits in Tokyo. And the Koreans do not want to dilute the importance of their bilateral Washington Declaration, adopted earlier this year in the Biden-Yoon summit.
The Camp David summit is actually a rescheduling of a meeting that was planned for the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima but did not take place due to Biden’s need to rush home to deal with the U.S. debt limit negotiations.
U.S. security officials had hoped to follow up on earlier agreements to share missile defense information in real-time, formalized at the trilateral defense ministers meeting in June in Singapore, and the establishment of trilateral joint exercises for anti-submarine and missile defense.
Locking in the gains
The symbolism of a stand-alone summit at Camp David, site of many famous meetings, will still capture the headlines. But behind this lie serious concerns about the fragility of this progress, no matter how much it will be celebrated in all three capitals.
The Biden administration is trying to lock in the gains of the past year to create structures of cooperation that can endure beyond the current administrations in power in Seoul and Tokyo. Lurking behind that there is a fear, strongly felt in Japan and South Korea, that the U.S. elections could return to power an American president who has no real commitment to these alliances.
There are considerable forces in both Japan and South Korea that seek to undermine, if not reverse, what has taken place in the past year. Both South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio suffer from low popularity and ongoing challenges to their leadership.
Serious unresolved issues in the realm of wartime historical justice could re-emerge at any moment. And there are gaps in strategic perception among all three countries that remain largely unaddressed, especially in Washington.
The failure to forge an effective regional trade strategy on the part of the Biden administration undermines whatever progress has been made on trilateral security. The most obvious and effective vehicle for cooperation remains the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
There is a clear benefit if South Korea joined the CPTPP, particularly if China seeks to join the grouping. But the Biden administration, for domestic political reasons, can offer no public push for that move.
While South Korea and Japan are bound by their alliance with the U.S., they do not share the same priorities.
For Korea, the central issue has been and always will be the division of the Korean peninsula and the ongoing threat of the North Korean regime to seek reunification by military means. While Seoul worries about the Sino-Russian partnership that has emboldened Pyongyang, Korean policymakers are reluctant to be drawn into an overt balancing strategy against the PRC.
For Japan, while North Korea is a shared threat, the main security focus is on China and on the tightening alliance between China and Russia, propelled by the Ukraine war. The possibility of Chinese use of force in resolving the Taiwan question has become a much more urgent issue as a result.
But the Japanese also reflect the same views as Koreans about the need to avoid a path toward full-scale economic war with China and to continue to seek ways to engage Beijing.
“Amid the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China, Japan finds itself in an increasingly delicate situation, caught between its security guarantor and its leading economic partner,” former Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanaka Hitoshi wrote recently.
“As a staunch ally of the United States, Japan is committed to reinforcing the alliance framework to deter unilateral changes to the status quo and uphold regional stability. At the same time, despite significant debate and diverse views on its China policy, Japan’s geographic proximity, extensive people-to-people connections, and strong economic ties with China mean that it must carefully navigate tensions and avert unnecessary instability or chaos.”
Ironically, that is true as well for the U.S. although its current political climate does not allow a frank discussion of this reality, though that is changing slightly.
The politics of normalization in Korea and Japan
The greatest source of potential challenges to this progress toward a trilateral security pact is the attempt to push ahead in Korea-Japan relations without really resolving the issues of colonial and wartime history.
The normalization of relations is largely the consequence of the change in administrations in Seoul, though even during the previous progressive administration there was a growing conviction that the severe downturn in relations needed to be reversed.
Yoon has very clearly repudiated the use of anti-Japanese tropes in Korean domestic politics and taken steps to unilaterally resolve the forced labor issue, the Fukushima nuclear wastewater discharge controversy, the export control problem and lingering barriers to security cooperation such as the fire control incident of 2018.
Still, Yoon’s personal popularity remains relatively low, though support for his administration has stabilized somewhat. That said, the polarization of Korean politics remains unchanged. The opposition Democratic Party is gearing up for what promises to be a highly contested and crucial election next spring for the National Assembly, where the Democrats still hold a majority.
The key issues pushed by the progressives are aimed squarely at Yoon’s foreign and security policy agenda, as well as at issues of domestic economic reform. These include the Fukushima discharge, the confrontation with trade unions over labor policy reforms, the unilateral and unreciprocated settlement of the forced labor compensation suits, and the charge that Yoon is undermining Korean independence by subordinating policy to the U.S. and Japan.
The Korean left argues that Yoon’s tilt against China is dictated by the US and Japan and endangers the Korean economy, which is suffering from slowing growth driven in part by a steep decline in exports of Korean semiconductors, batteries and other technology goods to China.
Even among conservatives in Korea, there is a growing concern that while Korea has embraced a confrontation with China, it may find itself alone as the U.S. pursues the resumption of engagement with Beijing. If the economy continues to suffer, with Korean businesses seeming to be put at risk due to the anti-China policy, this may shape the coming election as a potential turning point for Yoon’s foreign and security policy shift.
The politics of normalization in Japan are not nearly as perilous as those of Korea. Prime Minister Kishida’s efforts to improve the optics of relations – the visit of Yoon to Japan, the reciprocal visit to Korea, and the joint appearance at the memorial for Korean victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima – are generally viewed positively in Japan.
Within elite policy circles in Japan, based on this writer’s conversations in Tokyo this year, there is recognition that President Yoon has taken serious and even politically risky steps to improve relations and that it is the Japanese interest to support those efforts. Skepticism about Korean commitment to normal relations and the easing of anti-Japanese feelings in Korea has eased considerably.
The history problem will not go away
However, Kishida has been unwilling – and perhaps politically unable – to offer significant concessions on the historical justice issues, most specifically to encourage Japanese corporations to offer contributions to the fund used by Korea to compensate forced labor victims and their descendants.
Nor was Kishida willing to directly address the issues of Japan’s wartime conduct or its colonial rule. All of that was widely noted by Koreans and influenced the view held by Koreans that Yoon made all the concessions on this issue and the Japanese did essentially nothing.
Kishida remains effectively constrained by the strength of the more conservative and historically revisionist elements of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), mainly organized by the former Abe faction but not confined to its members alone.
He may not feel able to take the steps needed on history issues until he holds another general election under his leadership and, if successful, ends the constant discussion of his succession within the LDP. Kishida, however, also shows no personal interest or conviction to confront the history issues more directly.
There is a belief in Tokyo, echoed in Washington, and to some degree in the Presidential administration in Seoul, that the history issues have been effectively contained and even resolved. That will probably be reflected in the outcome of the Camp David summit. But that is an illusion, and a dangerous one.
Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
This article originally appeared in The Oriental Economist.
Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons by Cameron Smith.