Editor's Note

Eunjung Lim, a Professor of International Studies at Kongju National University, identifies the reaffirmation of a commitment to complete denuclearization of DPRK, a clearer strategic position toward China, and the common goal of institutionalizing trilateral cooperation as the key outcomes of the ROK-U.S.-Japan Summit at Camp David. However, she highlights that South Korea, the United States, and Japan all face domestic political controversies that complicate effective cooperation. Lim urges the three leaders to garner public support within their respective countries and build on the current momentum of trilateral cooperation.

On August 18, the leaders of South Korea, the United States, and Japan met for a trilateral summit at Camp David, a retreat for the President of the United States in Maryland. It was the first time the three countries’ leaders had met separately rather than as part of a multilateral meeting. President Yoon Suk Yeol, President Joseph Biden, and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio adopted three documents – the Spirit of Camp David, Camp David Principles, and the Commitment to Consult – and pledged to strengthen trilateral cooperation from that point forward.


What Brought Them Together?


The three countries’ leaders gathered at this historic site, famous for the Camp David Accords that led to the Arab-Israeli peace process for several reasons. Above all, North Korea’s provocations have crossed the line. North Korea has been on a rampage since the so-called “Hanoi No Deal,” with this year being particularly bad. Between January and August, North Korea launched various types of missiles nineteen times. That is an average frequency of more than two launches per month. They range from short-range ballistic missiles to ICBM(Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) and SLCM(Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile). North Korea has also attempted to launch a reconnaissance satellite twice, in May and August, and it has even launched several different types of drones.


First, while South Korea is superior to North Korea in terms of conventional forces, North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations have reached a point where South Korea cannot handle the situation alone. North Korea is poised to attack not only South Korea but also another neighbor, Japan, as well as the U.S. mainland across the Pacific. Furthermore, North Korea has even conducted cyberattacks to steal cryptocurrencies and use the money to fund its missile program. Rather than going it alone, the three countries are better off working together on these serious issues.


Second, while the strategic competition between the United States and China intensifies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attempt to change the status quo by force calls for solidarity and efforts to uphold international laws and norms. As President Biden noted, the inaction of the free world in response to Russia’s behavior sets a bad precedent with the potential to lead to similar violations of sovereign territory in the future.


Some critics, citing Mearsheimer’s offensive realism, would argue that the trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan will only reinforce the cooperation between North Korea, China, and Russia and create a security dilemma. In the same vein, they would argue that NATO’s expansion, which provoked Russia arguably, is the cause of the war in Ukraine. However, we need to be clear about who eventually crossed the line and violated international law, not who stimulated how much.


South Korea went through the same situation as Ukraine 73 years ago. North Korea was the one who crossed the 38th parallel with Soviet tanks, and South Korea is still facing threats and intimidation from North Korea, while the armistice, which turns 70 this year, has yet to be replaced by a peace agreement. At this point, a show of solidarity between like-minded countries can be understood as an act of self-defense rather than an attempt to aggress against anyone else.


Third, there is a growing recognition that non-traditional security challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, cannot be addressed by a single country and require international cooperation and policy coordination. The creation of multiple nexuses characterizes emerging security issues. For example, supply chain crises related to economic security can also spill over into public health and/or environmental issues, thus creating completely unpredictable challenges. Effective responses to such issues require advances in science and technology, as well as international cooperation, which is why South Korea, the United States, and Japan, three countries that can be trusted mainly because of shared values and commonalties among their regimes and are expected to create synergistic effects through cooperation, are determined to work together.


What Is Noteworthy?


Regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the most direct and urgent issue for South Korea, the “Washington Declaration” issued during President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit to the United States in April, reaffirmed U.S. extended deterrence and led to the establishment of the ROK-U.S. Nuclear Consultative Group. In addition to this, the following points were agreed upon at the Camp David Summit.


First, South Korea, the United States, and Japan reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.


This clarity of a common goal is both important and meaningful. When Yoon and Biden’s predecessors, President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump, respectively, negotiated with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, there were controversies surrounding terminology. There was debate over whether to refer to CVID (Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement/ Denuclearization) or FFVD (Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization) and whether to denuclearize North Korea or the entire Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, Moon and Trump’s Japanese counterpart, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, was consistently skeptical of negotiations with Pyongyang. The debate over whether North Korea or the entire Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized eventually led to the Moon administration’s use of the term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which is technically incorrect. South Korea has withdrawn all of its deployed U.S. nuclear weapons since the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and it is not seeking to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Ultimately, a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula requires the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Whether this is plausible is another matter, as North Korea’s denuclearization seems increasingly unrealistic and South Korean public opinion is more skewed towards either self-nuclear armament or redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. However, neither option, supported by the majority of South Koreans, is realistic at this point. Given this situation, arguing over who is responsible for denuclearization or the prefixes that precede it can add more confusion to allies’ policies. It would be fair to say that the Hanoi No Deal resulted from a lack of close policy coordination between the partner countries.


Of course, the third document, the Commitment to Consult, states that it does not supersede or infringe on the treaties on the alliance between the United States and South Korea and between the United States and Japan, so we cannot expect the three countries to create a NATO-like collective defense system right away. It is, however, encouraging to see that they are willing to share a common goal and coordinate their policies.


Second, along with the North Korea issue, it is important to mention that the three countries, South Korea, the United States, and Japan, have decided to work together to keep China in check. Of course, unlike during the Cold War, all three countries have very close economic ties with China, with none of them wanting to exclude China or turn it into a perfect enemy completely. However, all three countries are concerned about the possibility of armed conflict over the Taiwan Strait, and they worry about a future where China becomes a dominant player in emerging technologies. A Chinese technological hegemony would mean the dominance of Chinese standards and norms, so the competition for technological supremacy is also a competition for regime legitimacy. With this shared perception, the three leaders emphasized ASEAN’s strategic position and cooperation between the three countries and ASEAN. They also expressed their commitment to strengthening cooperation in the field of science and technology.


Third, it is noteworthy that we have seen a willingness to institutionalize cooperation between the three countries around the common goal. In addition to having a trilateral summit at least once a year, the three countries agreed to hold consultations between their foreign ministers, defense ministers, and national security advisors, and it is interesting to note that they also agreed to hold annual consultations between their finance ministers and commerce and industry ministers. The regularization of consultations in the areas of science, space, cybersecurity, and international development cooperation, as well as the strengthening of triangular cooperation, shows that the three governments want to not only share awareness of the aforementioned changes in the world but also coordinate their responses to the emerging challenges.


Never before have the three countries shown such a willingness to cooperate in such a comprehensive manner, and it is undeniable that this was made possible due to the improved relations between South Korea and Japan, the weak link in the hub-and-spoke system.


What Is Left?


It is clear from the Camp David summit that South Korea, the United States, and Japan are determined to deepen their cooperation and have shown the will to institutionalize it. However, it remains to be seen whether the will of these three governments is sustainable due more to the domestic political situation of the three countries than anything else.


The U.S. is facing a presidential election next year. Assuming the war in Ukraine continues into next year and that various rivalries and disputes with China continue, next year’s presidential election will be more competitive than any previous election. The more divided public opinion in the United States and the more President Biden becomes immersed in the campaign, the weaker U.S. leadership in trilateral cooperation may become.


Meanwhile, opposition to the Yoon administration remains quite strong in South Korea. South Korea is also facing a general election next spring, so depending on the outcome of this election, President Yoon may quickly experience the lame-duck phenomenon. Additionally, many South Koreans remain distrustful of Japan and are reluctant to cooperate militarily with Japan. According to a perception survey released in June by the Korea Institute for National Unification, when asked if South Korea and Japan should form a military alliance to counter the North Korean threat, 52% of the Korean respondents answered affirmatively, while 47% answered negatively.


In Japan, the Kishida’s approval rating remains in the low 30s. Japanese conservatives generally favor the normalization of its state, but the financial pressures and domestic opposition to achieve it are daunting.


In short, for the momentum of the fledgling trilateral cooperation to continue, it is paramount for the leadership of the three countries to have the support of domestic public opinion. Most importantly, this trilateral cooperation must demonstrate real and tangible results as soon as possible. How Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo respond to another North Korean provocation in the not-too-distant future will be a litmus test.



Eunjung Lim is an Associate Professor of the Division of International Studies at Kongju National University and a member of the Policy Advisory Committee for Ministry of Unification.



Typeset by Jisoo Park, Research Associate
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