Understanding the US, Japan, and South Korea Trilateral Summit at Camp David

Greetings between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left), US President Joe Biden (middle), and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) during the Camp David Trilateral Summit in August. SOURCE: AXIOS

History remembers that the US and Japan were once deadly foes during World War II, just as Japan and South Korea were. Tripartite collaboration was once thought impossible for the trio due to Japan’s imperial ambitions in the past. 

However, because of the numerous missiles launched from North Korea in 2023 and China’s “aggressive conduct” in the South China Sea, the security of East Asia has prompted an interesting political momentum—one where it has turned historic foes into friends.

US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol engaged in a high-level trilateral summit on Aug. 19, at Camp David, a resort in Maryland, US. 

This was the first time the three leaders created a separate summit for themselves rather than meeting in a multilateral platform of an international organization. This summit marked the new era of trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea as many historic documents were produced from the meeting.

The Camp David Principle and the Spirit of Camp David

The trilateral summit concluded with two principal documents, namely the Camp David Principle and the Spirit of Camp David

The Camp David Principle is a document that serves as a guideline for the three countries’ cooperation. This document highlights their shared commitment in the Indo-Pacific and beyond—through mutual respect, values, and responsibility. 

Moreover, the US, Japan, and South Korea will continue to pursue a free and peaceful Indo-Pacific in accordance with international law and promote their support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality and unity through the ASEAN framework. 

The trio also confirmed their commitment to peace and political stability in the Taiwan Strait and pledged their commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea. 

The Camp David Principle promotes human rights and women’s participation in society, with the three countries aiming to strengthen this cooperation in the long run.

In addition, the summit also featured the Spirit of Camp David. In contrast to the principle, the Spirit of Camp David is a document that spotlights the creation of a body that will represent the mutual vision and challenges that the US, Japan, and South Korea are facing. 

The trio agreed to work closely through their economy, promoting democracy, and protecting human rights, where the prosperity and well-being of the people in the region will be their collective responsibility. 

The Trilateral Security Cooperation

President Yoon (left) speaks during the press conference with President Biden (middle), and Prime Minister Kishida (right) after the trilateral summit. SOURCE: YONHAP

Aside from the Camp David Principle and the Spirit of Camp David, the summit also stressed the beginning of a new era between the US, Japan, and South Korea. The three countries will form a trilateral cooperative body that will closely collaborate on matters that could directly impact their national security. This includes creating a hotline between the three nations, conducting annual meetings and military exercises, and sharing live information on ballistic missile activities in the region.

Don’t be confused! This is not a trilateral security alliance but more of an enhanced collaboration between the three states to remain vigilant on the Korean Peninsula’s issues including North Korea’s growing aggression.  

Apart from the security and information development, the summit also focused on the joint effort to cooperate on technological innovations such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and space exploration, which are the leading comparative advantages of the three countries.

There are serious implications that resulted from this trilateral meeting in which the trio and international community need to be cautious. 

As a benefit, the summit will create a form of assurance, a trustworthy union between the US, Japan, and South Korea to deal with China’s aggression and North Korea’s growing missile arsenal, a looming threat in East Asia. 

The trilateral meeting will also contribute to the institutionalization and assurance of the cooperation sustainability among the trio, rather than it being a one-time event. This will lead to long-term alliance fortification and the prevention of their historic conflict deterring their relations again in the future. 

As President Biden said, their Cabinet members will meet “from this point on, not just this year, not next year [but] forever.”

However, there are also invisible effects that are taking shape as a result of this summit. China and North Korea will indefinitely view the Camp David summit as a containment effort and will retaliate—in some way. 

Evidence from a recent Chinese military drill and the meeting between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and Russian leader Vladimir Putin signified the response and possible future cooperation of China, Russia, and North Korea in retaliation to the formation of the US, Japan, and South Korea cooperation.

As President Yoon said, “from this moment on, Camp David will be remembered as a historic place where the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Japan proclaimed that we will bolster the rules-based international order and play key roles to enhance regional security and prosperity, based on our shared values of freedom, human rights and rule of law.” 

This speech signaled South Korea’s readiness in gearing up to host next year’s trilateral summit. 

The world now watches with bated enthusiasm as we witness how the US, South Korea, and Japan will continue to conduct their diplomatic tango, a dance that would no doubt further improve their tripartite cooperation.

About Bunly Ek 1 Article
Bunly Ek is currently pursuing a Master in International Cooperation and East Asia at Yonsei University as a 2022 Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) recipient from Cambodia. Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) in Cambodia. Prior to arriving in Korea, he served as a personal assistant to the former Executive Director of CICP, who had previously been Cambodia’s Ambassador to Japan. His publication and research focus on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US–China relations which can be found in the Korea Times, the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodianess, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Stratsea, and CICP.