On 18 August 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol held a trilateral summit with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David, near Washington. The South Korean president visited Camp David for the first time since 2008, when it was first visited by former President Lee Myung-bak. The summit also marked the first full-fledged trilateral meeting after previous shorter encounters at regional and international gatherings.
To date, the three countries have held 12 trilateral meetings, three of which were during the Yoon administration on the multilateral diplomatic event’s sidelines. But this trilateral meeting, in the author’s opinion, was a major event. The author has written many times that in an era of global turbulence, a single political space is disintegrating, giving way to bloc formations. Although, unlike NATO or other allied blocs during the Second World War, the institutional design of the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul bloc looks different, the summit documents, which we will discuss later, prepare the basis for a full-fledged military-political alliance.
The trilateral summit was proposed by Joe Biden in May 2023 when the three leaders met on the margins of a Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. The date was announced on July 20.
In anticipation of the event, conservative media pumped readers up with information that it would be an important step in the formation of a fundamentally new regional security framework. The Korea Herald directly wrote that “the confrontation between the free world and authoritarian dictatorships seems to be escalating as North Korea, China and Russia openly demonstrate their solidarity,” and therefore the Camp David summit should “work out measures not only to strengthen the US’ strategy of extended deterrence against North Korea’s security threats, but also to cope with the growing unity of the three nuclear-armed autocracies.”
As the conservative but oppositional Korea Times wrote, “the alliance must be strengthened” as North Korea, China and Russia are getting closer than ever before. The allies should issue a joint statement calling on China and Russia to act responsibly for peace on the peninsula, although Yoon should also consider how to “maintain smooth relations with China and Russia while strengthening cooperation with the United States and Japan. It should not be a zero-sum game. “More vigorous and prudent diplomatic action must be taken to prevent further deterioration of relations with Beijing and Moscow.”
Officials from the President’s closest entourage also noted the significance of the future event. First Deputy Director of National Security Kim Tae-hyo said bluntly that “the Camp David summit will mark a new stage of cooperation between the three countries in the 21st-century diplomatic history… With this meeting, the trilateral framework will gain distinct independence as a cooperative body in the Indo-Pacific region.” However, it was noted that the summit would not discuss issues such as the discharge of radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
On 15 August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, quoting President Biden, said that the upcoming meeting of the leaders of the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan would mark the start of a new chapter in the history of the trilateral alliance at a time when the regional and international environment was in a state of geopolitical competition. The time has come to strengthen and renew the alliance and reaffirm a shared vision of a free, open, prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific region. According to Blinken, South Korea and Japan are key US allies in the Indo-Pacific region and globally, and therefore strengthening trilateral cooperation is important for the region and the world.
Yoon also touted the upcoming summit as one that would “set a new milestone in trilateral cooperation, contributing to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region.”
In turn, China opposed this summit, calling it the promotion of the “Asian NATO” project, in response to which a representative of the ROK presidential administration said that the summit was not aimed at containing China.
On 17 August, Yoon’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in the Washington area. His visit program included a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden, the trilateral US-ROK-Japan summit, the outcome of which was announced during a joint press conference, a joint lunch of the three leaders and negotiations with Fumio Kishida.
During the meeting, the US and ROK presidents discussed expanded deterrence and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, noting that the Washington Declaration adopted in April was implemented in good faith. The parties agreed to continue to work closely together to strengthen extended deterrence, i.e. U.S. readiness to use all available means, including nuclear and confirmed their determination to establish long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula through the complete denuclearization of the North. The United States and South Korea agreed to strengthen cooperation to counter Pyongyang’s receipt of funds from sending workers abroad and illegal activities in cyberspace. In addition, the meeting participants discussed cooperation in the field of economic security and advanced technologies.
At a similar meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the parties noted increased cooperation due to improved relations between states and agreed on the need to strengthen cooperation amid rising nuclear threats from North Korea.
The main outcome of this summit is a new level of security partnership, reflected in three documents. The first document is the “Camp David Principles,” which briefly defines the goals and methods of trilateral cooperation: the allies declared their intention to push for a world order based on rules, shared values of freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and play a key role in ensuring security and prosperity in the region.
The second document is the “S. Korea-US-Japan Commitment to Consult” through which the parties agreed to immediately consult with each other in the event of threats in the Indo-Pacific region affecting the interests of all three countries and create a communication channel for close communication and timely responses at the level of deputy ministers. The document itself does not specify the threats (and this allows it to be interpreted as broadly as possible). However, the South Korean presidential administration clarified that this refers to trade disputes, disruptions in supply chains, a missile threat from North Korea, a serious provocation at sea, as well as any other threat within or outside the country.
The “commitment” involves the exchange of information, harmonization and coordination of actions. However, it is not a matter of replacing obligations within the framework of the US-ROK and US-Japan alliances. “Countries remain free to take all necessary actions to protect their security or sovereignty.”
The third document is a joint statement called “The Spirit of Camp David.” It sets out arrangements for holding annual trilateral meetings among the countries’ leaders, foreign ministers, defence, finance ministers and national security advisers. The United States, Japan and South Korea reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of the DPRK and announced annual joint defence exercises and the creation of a system for exchanging data on North Korean missile activity in real-time by the end of 2023. A similar agreement was reached to further expand interaction and cooperation on missile defence.
It was also agreed to create a tripartite working group to combat North Korean cyber threats and block attempts by Pyongyang to circumvent international sanctions through online activities. The issue of strengthening cooperation to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK was also discussed, including “resolving issues of abducted, detained and unrepatriated prisoners of war.”
Regarding the policy towards Moscow and Beijing, it is less specific. In the Russian direction, the allies committed themselves to continue providing assistance to Ukraine, impose coordinated, robust sanctions on Moscow and accelerate the reduction of dependency on Russian energy.
As for China, Beijing was mentioned for the first time as an obstacle to the “rules-based international order.” They also noted the “dangerous and aggressive behaviour supporting China’s unlawful claims” in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Moreover, even before the publication of the documents, US Presidential National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan pointed out that the United States did not set a goal to form a trilateral alliance in the form of a NATO-like alliance in the Indo-Pacific and that this “partnership was not against anyone. It is for something. It is for a vision of the Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, secure and prosperous.”
The parties committed themselves to cooperate on economic security issues, in particular, to introduce pilot early warning programs for disruptions in supply chains, primarily for semiconductors and batteries. An advisory body on development policy issues (the first meeting will be held in October) and a health cooperation system will be created. There is an agreement to strengthen cooperation to prevent illegal exports or thefts of advanced technologies and expand trilateral cooperation in the field of high technologies.
Considering the timing of the summit, it is reasonable to assume that all these documents were prepared in advance, and judging by the rhetoric, mainly by the American side.
At a joint conference after the summit, President Yoon said that “the three countries should firmly unite so that our individual freedoms are not threatened or harmed… This is also a promise and duty to our future generations.” “Camp David will now be remembered as a historic place where South Korea, the United States and Japan declared their intention to promote the rules-based international order based on shared values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and to play a central role for regional security and prosperity.”
Joe Biden recalled that strengthening ties between the three countries has been a priority for him since he was vice president and he thanked Yoon and Kishida for their political courage, keeping in mind their recent efforts to improve South Korea-Japan relations, which have been badly undermined by historical disputes under the previous Moon administration. The US President also said that they made history by bringing their trilateral military cooperation to an unprecedented level.
Kishida responded that it was the right time to realize the potential of the three countries’ strategic cooperation and expressed hope that the three countries would expand their cooperation in various sectors, including critical and emerging technologies, while strengthening their response to the North Korean nuclear threat. The Prime Minister also noted that the three countries agreed to strengthen cooperation “to fully implement the sanctions” and work closely together in the United Nations Security Council, of which all three countries would be members in 2024.
On 20 August, Yoon Suk Yeol returned home, and as usual, the summit outcome was met with mixed reactions in the country. We will do a detailed analysis of the domestic and foreign policy reactions later, but some diplomacy and security experts evaluate the outcome of the summit as the biggest change since the creation of the Korea-US alliance in 1953. Trilateral security cooperation has truly reached a new level, and although it was actively explained by the growth of cooperation between the PRC, the DPRK and the Russian Federation, Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow have not yet adopted any similar documents. That is why, despite Sullivan’s statements, we are talking about the birth of a “new iron triangle”: the trend towards the disintegration of a single political space in favour of bloc formations has rapidly accelerated. Essentially, this is the first step before the formation of an alliance.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.