This September, President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea for a weekend summit at Camp David. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and tensions between the U.S. and China over trade, militarization, and Taiwan, the meeting was a notable step in ongoing efforts by the U.S. to increase trilateral cooperation amongst its allies in East Asia.
To contextualize the summit and its implications for the U.S.-South Korea-Japan relationship, Gi-Wook Shin, Daniel Sneider, Thomas Fingar, and Oriana Skylar Mastro — scholars at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) — explain the evolution of the relationship and how the summit may impact the dynamic moving forward.
A Complicated History
While South Korea and Japan are both long standing partners and allies with the United States, their bilateral relationship with each other has historically been strained.
“Japanese colonialism was instrumental to the formation of Korean national identity. The Korean peninsula is surrounded by big powers such as China, Japan, and Russia. Even today, these influences are still very strong. A sense of threat is still there.”
In particular, issues stemming from the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945 remain a political third rail in both countries. The use of Korean nationals as forced laborers and soldiers in Japanese industry and the Japanese military remains an unresolved legacy, as do demands for the recognition of and restitution for Korean women who were taken into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930s and 40s.
In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court passed a series of rulings requiring Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel of Japan to compensate 14 Korean citizens for their unpaid labor. As of yet, neither company has agreed to comply with the ruling. The South Korean government has since announced plans to compensate survivors who were forced to work in Japanese mines and factories during the wartime period, but this remains a unilateral decision on the part of the Yoon administration, not a bilateral position between South Korea and Japan.
These tensions have ripple effects far outside of East Asia. Writing for Toyo Keizai, Daniel Sneider, an FSI Lecturer in International Policy with a focus on Asia, explains the broader geopolitical implications of these issues:
“The Americans have been urging the two countries to settle these problems in order to ease the way to the kind of security cooperation that has become visible in recent months. Joint military exercises for missile defense and other small steps to intensify trilateral coordination are taking place and a resolution of the history of problems may be key to moving ahead.”
The last year has seen increased efforts to restore more functionality to the South Korea-Japan relationship. President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida met briefly on the sidelines of the September 2022 UN General Assembly meeting in New York, which was followed by respective visits of Yoon to Tokyo in March 2023 and Kishida to Seoul two months later in May, the first such visits in over 11 years.
The Camp David summit, which brought the U.S., South Korea, and Japan together as strategic partners, is the latest step on the hoped-for road to institutionalized security cooperation between the three nations.
“The importance of this [summit] is that it was a genuine trilateral meeting, which means the Japanese and the Koreans are talking to one another as opposed to the U.S. dealing separately with each of them.”
In contrast to the idyllic Camp David setting, the three leaders are faced with a weighty set of issues, noted Sneider, including the crisis triggered by the Ukraine war, North Korea’s aggressive posture, as well as growing concerns about China.
Oriana Skylar Mastro, an FSI Center Fellow and an expert on security, conflict resolution, and the Chinese military elaborated further on the mutual pressures South Korea, Japan, and the United States face:
“Since President Biden came into office, he’s really stressed strengthening alliances and partnerships as a way of protecting U.S. interests abroad. I'm sure there has been much work behind the scenes to try to get these two countries to come together. In terms of the timing [of this summit], it's of course partially because of the accumulation of these concerns over China. I think also the war in Ukraine has done a lot to really open up leaders' eyes to the dangers of having neighbors with territorial hopes and claims that also have strong militaries that could potentially be undeterred from using force. I think it's fair to say that this has also pushed these two countries to rethink their own strategies for security.”
An Uncertain Future
The official summit documents outline both a vision of partnership and offer a variety of practical agreements on everything from annual leadership summits to meetings on economic and cyber security, and a proposal for how to move forward with joint military exercises. Notably, the two-paragraph ‘commitment to consult’ on responses to ‘regional challenges, provocations, and threats affecting our collective interests and security’ — while not a fully embodied collective security agreement — is nonetheless a “stunning achievement,” says Daniel Sneider.
Despite agreeing on a hefty laundry list of shared concerns and security goals, the way forward for additional trilateralization between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is not necessarily clear. Oriana Mastro explained:
“Even though they might have shared threat perceptions, there is still a lot of trust that has to happen between nations for them to take coordinated military approaches. If two countries, for example, exercise together — and that's one of the things that the Biden administration is hoping to get out of this summit: more routine trilateral exercises — you get to learn a lot about another country's military, and that only really happens between friends. That’s also true of intel sharing. When you share intelligence, you’re not only sharing information, you're sharing how you get intelligence, which can also be sensitive. So while they've shared these threats for a while, it hasn't really gotten to the level in which they were willing to take risks in terms of the relationship between South Korea and Japan to become closer in the security space in a way that would help them combat these issues together.”
Besides the challenges of international diplomacy, Yoon, Kishida, and Biden also face domestic hurdles that could hinder further cooperation.
In a comment to the Wall Street Journal, Gi-Wook Shin noted that, “Yoon only entered politics a few years ago. If his party loses the election, I don’t know who will stay with him.” Improving South Korea-Japan relations was a major platform of the Yoon campaign, and backlash against his administration could yield disinterest or even renewed hostility toward continuing his efforts.
Daniel Sneider sees similar challenges for Biden and Kishida. Writing in East Asia Forum, he cautioned:
“President Joe Biden is already embroiled in an election campaign that threatens to bring Donald Trump and his isolationist views back to power. The Camp David summit was barely noticed amid the constant flow of domestic political news, though it mostly received welcome praise in the media. . . Imprisoned by domestic politics, the White House will likely be unable to give substance to this emergent partnership.”
In the case of Kishida, the decision to release wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear site, which came just days after the conclusion of the summit, has been particularly counterproductive. Sneider continued:
“Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been waiting for a bump from the Camp David summit. But he is experiencing a deepening slide in opinion polls. The Fukushima release faces opposition within Japan, including from fishermen and others worried about boycotts of Japanese products in China and South Korea. Talk of an early parliamentary election in Japan, intended to consolidate Kishida’s claim to long-term leadership, is now on hold.”
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