It is a rare moment in foreign policy when all the stars align. Normally, the choices are just between bad and worse. U.S. President Joe Biden’s first-ever Camp David summit for the United States, South Korea, and Japan was a happy diplomatic milestone, albeit a fragile one. Richard Nixon to China it was not—but if Biden was thinking about his legacy, it’s on the shortlist.
The summit did not shift geopolitical tectonic plates, but instead reflected—and accentuated—their existing shifts. In part, it was a reaction to increasing geostrategic polarization, seen in the growing alignment of China, Russia, and North Korea. That’s pressed Japan, South Korea, and the United States even closer together, but it also creates greater strategic risks.
The new trilateral diplomacy on display at the summit was not a mini-NATO, as China and some media analyses suggested. Neither South Korea nor Japan is fully aligned with the United States on China. And while they both have mutual defense treaties with Washington, they’re not obliged to defend each other if one is attacked.
However, institutionalizing the integration of two bilateral alliances is a force multiplier for deterrence. The trilateral, in effect, is one of several new institutions like the U.S.-Australia-India-Japan Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) and AUKUS (a U.S.-U.K.-Australia defense industrial venture), intra-Asian security cooperation networks, and new supply chains designed to counterbalance China. These initiatives already overshadow long-standing, but largely inconsequential, ritual Asian fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—a security dialogue among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—and the East Asia Summit.
As the leaders’ joint statement outlined, the three democracies spun out an expansive regional and global agenda seeking to closely align not just defense cooperation, but a full spectrum of issues from the South China Sea to supply chains, foreign aid, and tech standards.
The headlines—and the summit’s unusually pointed condemnation of Beijing—suggested China was a singular focus. China loomed large, but, in fact, the main driver of the movement was the Koreas. The glue holding trilateral cooperation together is North Korea, though shared apprehension of China reinforces it. On the plus side, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has made bold moves to reconcile with Japan, while on the negative side, North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile developments are altering the Northeast Asia strategic equation. Rather than a one-off, the summit was the culmination of U.S. on-again, off-again efforts since the 1990s to forge U.S.-South Korea-Japan security cooperation.
Just two years ago, the summit would have been unimaginable. South Korea and Japan were at each other’s throats. Historic antagonism from Tokyo’s brutal colonial rule and use of forced labor during World War II cast a dark shadow over the relationship. Until recently, Koreans worried about a rearmed Japan, with whom Seoul has territorial disputes.
Though Japan has formally apologized several times and legally resolved the problem by paying reparations in the form of aid upon normalization in 1965, Korean distrust remains. The proximate dispute was a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court decision ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation to victims of forced labor, though Tokyo held that matter was legally resolved by previous deals. This highlights lingering Korean nationalist resentment of Japan and a feeling that Tokyo’s apologies have been insincere. As a Korean friend told me some years ago, “It’s in our DNA.”
Though Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, and South Korean progressives often played the anti-Japan nationalist card, Yoon took a courageous step, at political cost to his ratings, and offered that Korean firms would pay the reparations. That sparked a swift Seoul-Tokyo reconciliation, the future overcoming the past, enabling the trilateral.
The transformation was dramatically underscored in Yoon’s Aug. 15 Liberation Day speech, often a venue to castigate Japan’s past role. Instead, Yoon previewed the trilateral summit, saying, “As partners that cooperate on security and the economy, Korea and Japan will be able to jointly contribute to peace and prosperity across the globe while collaborating and exchanging in a future-oriented manner.” Those words would have been unimaginable from previous Korean leaders.
Behind the trilateral embrace is growing concern about North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities—and its intentions. Twenty-five years of failed diplomacy and frequent missile launches have inured many to the menace of North Korea, but Pyongyang’s greeting the summit and U.S.-South Korea military exercises with a launch of potentially nuclear-capable cruise missiles and warnings of war help explain the degree to which Pyongyang shapes the trilateral worries.
Fueled by hacked cryptocurrency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is racing to build a survivable second-strike missile and nuclear force with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched cruise missiles, and tactical nukes. After launching a record of more than 95 missiles in 2022 and testing a new solid-fuel long-range ICBM in 2023—the Hwasong-18, which can comfortably reach the U.S.—Kim has an arsenal far more capable than needed to deter a U.S. attack.
Kim’s buildup has set off alarm bells for U.S. intelligence. In June, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Intelligence Council (NIC) declassified a national intelligence estimate (NIE) assessing how Kim is likely to leverage his accelerating nuclear and missile capabilities. The NIE says both the best- and worst-case scenarios are the least likely (but more than zero): Neither a passive use of nuclear weapons solely for deterrence nor a worst-case use of aggression—including using nuclear weapons—to dominate the Korean Peninsula is seen as probable.
More worrisome, the NIE says that Kim’s regime “most likely will continue to use its nuclear weapons status to support coercive diplomacy, and almost certainly will consider increasingly risky coercive actions as the quality and quantity of its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal grow.” This is where the China-Russia-North Korea coalition could lead to a nightmare scenario: Suppose that during a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan, Pyongyang decided to take advantage of a diverted United States to try to use coercive and/or military force to reunify Korea on its terms, a longtime North Korean fantasy. It wouldn’t succeed—but it would do catastrophic damage, to itself and others. Fortunately, to date, deterrence has held: Kim does not appear suicidal.
As North Korea has reshaped the strategic landscape on the Korean Peninsula, the United States and allies have responded by restructuring and enhancing deterrence and reassurance to Seoul and Tokyo, evident in the results of the summit. This has been evolving for some time. To alleviate qualms about the U.S. security umbrella, in July, Washington and Seoul held the first meeting of the U.S.-South Korean Nuclear Consultative Group, a deepened process of consultation, planning, and tabletop exercises on nuclear contingencies, including sending a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea.
It stops short of allowing Seoul to have a finger on the nuclear trigger. Similarly, the United States has deepened the consultation process with Japan. The White House was interested in trilateralizing the process, according to administration sources, but both Seoul and Tokyo rejected the idea.
However, the new level of trilateral defense cooperation agreed to at the summit was impressive: multiyear missile defense and anti-submarine exercises, maritime interdiction, real-time missile defense information sharing, and stepped-up efforts to counter North Korea’s cyberactivities. More broadly, the hope is to create a deeper culture and habits of regular consultation at the highest levels.
Beyond the Korean Peninsula, there’s an ambitious trilateral agenda aimed at countering China in ASEAN and Pacific Island nations, as well as broader economic and technology cooperation—which may run up against the U.S.’s own renewed economic nationalism.
Reflecting growing Chinese maritime provocations against the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, in the South China Sea, the joint declaration included a shot across the bow at China: a detailed, stinging “rules-based international order” indictment of Beijing’s maritime bullying by its coast guard and maritime militia in violation of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention and the 2016 International Court of Justice ruling that China’s territorial claims in the sea had no legal basis (which Beijing rejected). The unusually pointed statement denounced the “militarization” of disputed islets, illegal fishing, and “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.” Bringing its allies closer together is a fond goal of Washington’s, though how Tokyo or Seoul would react to any U.S. intervention to block China’s ambitions around the Philippines is extremely uncertain.
Some of the summit’s economic and tech cooperation measures—a supply chain early-warning system, new collaboration among national laboratories, and adopting common tech standards—may prove important, but the impact will play out over the rest of this decade. Translating pledges and intentions into durable policy is a tricky task after any diplomatic event.
Domestic challenges offer their own pitfalls here. While president, Donald Trump threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Korea and Japan. Trump also suggested imposing a 10 percent tariff on all nations’ imports, in effect declaring economic war on the world to build a “ring” around the U.S. economy. If Trump or an “anti-globalist” takes the White House, Biden’s efforts to weave security and economic collaboration among democratic allies might swiftly end.
Similarly, in South Korea, Yoon can only serve one five-year term. Though still almost three years out, Korean progressives of its Democratic Party might well look to the past more than the future. A single event can tip the balance. For example, there are now protests in Seoul against Japan releasing treated water from its tsunami-ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant. The summit has not boosted Yoon’s popularity, now around 38 percent, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is sagging in the polls at 28 percent, with difficult reelection odds.
Though the results of Biden’s skillful diplomacy may not be everything claimed, deeper trilateral cooperation is shaped by a perilous Asia-Pacific security reality likely to get worse before it gets better. The hope is the divide between the U.S. coalition and the grouping of China-Russia-North Korea tilts toward a more stable balance of power, rather than more fragmentation and conflict.
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