The Camp David U.S.-Japan-Korea Trilateral Summit: An Exchange among CSIS Japan and Korea Chairs

The historic summit at Camp David on August 18, 2023, with the leaders of the United States, Japan, and Republic of Korea (ROK), has been touted as opening a new era in trilateral cooperation among the three allies. The meetings produced a Statement of Principles and a Joint Statement that promised a regular schedule of trilateral annual meetings between leaders, not unlike the G7 leaders’ summit and NATO leaders’ summit. Trilateral meetings will also take place annually between foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors and other cabinet-level principals. Cooperation between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo will cover a wide range of issues including an annual, named set of trilateral military exercises, contingency planning, missile defense, economic security, supply chains, emerging technologies, development assistance, and countering disinformation. In this text compilation, CSIS Japan and Korea Chairs discuss the significance of the Camp David trilateral leaders’ summit in the context of Japan-ROK relations and U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Victor Cha: Historically, dating back to the 1969 Nixon-Sato “Korea Clause,” the United States has wanted strong trilateral security cooperation with its two major allies: Japan and South Korea. The ability to do this, however, has always been stymied by the weakest link—Seoul-Tokyo bilateral relations—plagued by the inability to work past the difficult history of the colonial era. Camp David arguably accomplished this long-sought U.S. goal, but why now? Three factors deserve mention: First, the security environment compels allied cooperation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s assertiveness against Taiwan and unlawful territorial claims, as well as North Korea’s unending nuclear missile campaign has affected Seoul and Tokyo’s threat perceptions. Second, the efforts by South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol to improve relations with Japan need to be recognized. When he decided to take on this domestically unpopular foreign policy objective, the bilateral relationship was dysfunctional: Korea was on Japan’s export control list, Japanese assets in Korea were under threat of being nationalized, Korea threatened to end intelligence sharing with Japan, and the two leaders were not talking. 

It’s quite astounding how much progress has been made leading up to Camp David in this context: a resolution of forced labor compensation claims, two bilateral summits, and additional meetings on the sidelines of G7 and NATO. Finally, the Biden administration efforts at networking its bilateral alliances have also been critical—whether this is the Quad, AUKUS, or CHIPS alliance (among others). There is a lot to like about the opening of this new era of trilateral cooperation. There is also a lot that China and Russia will not like about it. The question going forward will be whether the three allies can produce deliverables for the ambitious agenda set out at Camp David. 

Christopher B. Johnstone: The history of trilateral cooperation is something of a pendulum, with periods of progress in ties that are swiftly reversed after changes in the security environment or in political leadership, particularly in Japan and South Korea. During the last era of strong cooperation, under the administrations of President Barack Obama, President Park Geun-hye, and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the three countries broke new ground in expanding information sharing and deepening defense cooperation. By 2016, the countries had a robust trilateral exercise program, with as many as six events in a calendar year in mission areas such as maritime interdiction, ballistic missile defense, and anti-submarine warfare. But all of this was quickly suspended after the elections of President Moon Jae-in in South Korea and President Donald Trump in the United States.

The announcements at Camp David represent an effort to institutionalize ties and reduce the risk of history repeating itself. President Joe Biden, President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced a Commitment to Consult in response to common security challenges; though well short of binding treaty language, this political statement represents the first time that leaders of the countries have acknowledged their security is intertwined. They also announced plans to build a long-term calendar of military exercises, including an annual, named "multi-domain" event that Japanese diplomats privately highlighted as the most significant outcome on the meetings. They also committed to annual meetings of ministers, and to a range of initiatives related to development finance, supply chain security, and the protection of critical technologies—a significant broadening of the trilateral policy agenda compared with the past.

Nothing can fully insulate this partnership from the risk of future reversal, under different political leadership in any of the three countries. But the announcements at Camp David will be difficult for future leaders to repudiate. Walking away from the commitments, principles, and imagery of Camp David would be no small thing for any leader.

Ellen Kim: The Camp David summit set South Korea on a new strategic direction. In terms of South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship, the summit was a defining moment as, like Victor and Chris discussed, Yoon and Kishida, among many things, agreed to consult and coordinate their response actions on regional challenges, provocations, and threats affecting their countries. This Commitment to Consult is unprecedented—especially when historical and territorial disputes remain unresolved between South Korea and Japan. At the strategic level, the trilateral summit also represented an airtight alignment of South Korea’s strategic interests with those of the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, indicating South Korea’s embrace of an expanded role and responsibility as the “global pivotal state.”

Despite its success last week, the summit received a mixed response in South Korea. On one hand, there is consensus on the historical significance to hold a trilateral summit with the United States and Japan and the need to enhance and institutionalize the trilateral partnership in the face of North Korea’s growing threats. On the other hand, the summit also caused uneasiness in South Korea, raising immediate concerns about China’s potential punitive actions against South Korea and the impact of the enhanced U.S.-ROK-Japan partnership on the deepening strategic ties between North Korea, China, and Russia. In addition, some point to the danger of South Korea’s entrapment in Japan’s security issues with China in the region. Finally, others criticize the summit outcomes for their lack of a domestic consensus. All these reactions suggest that the trilateral partnership will likely face internal and external challenges, and it is critical for the Yoon government to convince the Korean public about why the trilateral partnership is in South Korea’s interest.

Nicholas Szechenyi: Kishida emphasized his “strong feelings” about strengthening Japan-ROK relations during a joint press conference with his counterparts at Camp David. His personal commitment to advancing bilateral ties will prove critical in preventing historical sensitivities from crowding out discussion of the impetus for what he said should be a forward-looking relationship. Supporting his cause is the reality that the underlying rationale for Japan bolstering Japan-ROK ties and the new framework for U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation is compelling, which bodes well for the durability of this dimension to regional strategy.

Victor noted the urgent need to strengthen deterrence. Ellen stressed the potential to coordinate initiatives across the Indo-Pacific now that the regional strategies of the three countries are increasingly aligned. And Chris referenced common interests in economic security and joint research on emerging technologies critical to future competitiveness. The joint statement also declared a shared commitment to promote respect for human rights in North Korea, a longstanding priority in Seoul and Tokyo that is now jointly affirmed in a trilateral context. In short, trilateral dialogue is no longer just about security issues in northeast Asia. The statement of principles outlined an affirmative agenda for supporting regional stability and prosperity set to enhance the leadership credentials of all three countries.

One question already surfacing in Japan is how the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation might affect Japan-China relations. Like many frontline states, Japan’s strategy is to balance deterrence with interaction to sustain diplomatic and economic ties. Kishida has expressed interest in a summit meeting with Xi Jinping, and his government recently announced plans to resume trilateral dialogue with South Korea for the first time since 2019. Thanks to the Camp David Summit, Japan and South Korea can now pursue such diplomacy from a position of strength, strategically aligned and willing to demonstrate that the U.S.-led trilateral alliance network in Northeast Asia cannot be broken. Such solidarity could lead to more pragmatic dialogue with Beijing.

VC: Regarding reactions to Camp David, the domestic-political criticism in Japan and Korea is to be expected to divide along political lines with opposition parties in both camps more opposed than not. It would be interesting to parse the polling to understand better how independents in each country react to these new trilateral commitments. Regarding China’s response as raised by Nick and Ellen, I tend to believe that this will only strengthen both Seoul and Tokyo’s hand in dealing with Beijing. China may not be happy with the trilateral tightening, as Wang Yi ineloquently stated, but at the same time, they will need to counter with their own diplomacy. This is why I expect that Beijing will lean forward on the proposal for a resumption of the Plus Three leaders’ meeting in Seoul rather than walk away from it.

I think there are some other points in the trilateral that received less attention but warrant recognition. Japan and Korea agreed to reduce energy dependence on Russia, which opens opportunities for strategic energy cooperation among the allies in civil nuclear and gas. As far as I can tell, this is the first time that South Korea supported Japan’s position on abductees as stated in the clause on addressing North Korean human rights abuses. This is also the first time that Japan has joined the United States in expressing support in writing for a “unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.” As a corollary to the Camp David statement, Yoon in the August 15 Liberation Day speech also made the unprecedented statement regarding the interlinked security of the three allies when he stated the United Nations Command rear bases provided by Japan were critical to South Korea’s defense. These are all major statements that tie the three allies closer together.

CJ: I’m struck by how both Yoon and Kishida appeared to be mindful of the political environment facing the other and conveyed messages intended to be helpful. Asked about Japan’s plans to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant destroyed by the tsunami in 2011, Yoon said, “internationally recognized and reliable IAEA’s [International Atomic Energy Agency] investigation results are something that we can trust”—an endorsement of Japan’s approach and an implicit repudiation of vocal Chinese criticism that IAEA testing is not enough. Securing South Korea’s endorsement at Camp David is significant for Kishida. As Nick noted, Kishida was eager to underscore his own commitment to ties with the ROK, in response to a question during the joint press conference about perceptions of Japan’s “passivity” in responding to Yoon’s overtures: “I have strong feelings about strengthening bilateral relationships between the ROK and Japan. I share that with President Yoon . . . friendship with President Yoon and a relationship of trust.”

There are still challenges ahead. Cooperation on economic security and supply chains is easier to announce than to execute, given the reality that United States, Japanese, and Korean firms are often direct competitors in high tech industries like semiconductors. The joint statement includes no reference to limits on outbound investment into China, a U.S. priority that both Tokyo and Seoul are hesitant to endorse. And Japan’s interest in resuming dialogue with North Korea on abductions, which the joint statement implicitly endorses, could introduce seams among the three countries if it gains traction; Japanese diplomats privately note that there is “daylight” between Tokyo and Seoul on this question. But the mutual awareness of the political dynamics confronting each leader was remarkable.

EK: In the coming weeks, the trilateral partnership will be put to the test on two issues. One is, as Chris mentioned, Japan’s plan to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which is set to begin from August 24. The Yoon government expressed “respect” for the IAEA investigation results but also made clear that it “will place top priority on [Korean] people’s health and safety.” Yet, public concerns are still deep and strong in Korea, and addressing this will demand close communication and cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo based on newly established trust between their two leaders. The other is how the three countries will respond to North Korea’s military satellite launch, as Pyongyang notified its planned launch between August 24 and 31. This schedule also coincides with the annual U.S.-ROK joint military exercise, which will be joined by the United Nations Command sending states. Ironically, Japan’s discharge plan does not bode well for the bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo and has a potential to complicate the trilateral partnership while North Korea’s provocation will serve to legitimize the necessity of the trilateral partnership.

NS: There are certainly near-term challenges that will test the vitality of Japan-ROK ties and the trilateral network. But it’s noteworthy that the Camp David agenda includes a fundamental pillar of the U.S. alliance network in Asia that will prove impactful over the long term: a shared commitment to providing public goods to the Indo-Pacific region. Joint initiatives on humanitarian aid, maritime security, development finance, and other issues reflect a sustained commitment not just to their respective national interests, but to the collective interests of regional states. Concrete deliverables in these areas should also help define the new era of trilateral cooperation proclaimed at Camp David.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at CSIS. Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at CSIS. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow with the Japan Chair and deputy director for Asia at CSIS.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair
Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair