North Korea’s steady development of missiles and nuclear weapons over the past two decades has led the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea to set aside deep-seated historical grievances and pursue unprecedentedly expanded trilateral cooperation. But despite North Korea’s growing threat, most of the achievements at the Camp David summit meeting among U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol were driven more by the addition of China as a shared security concern rather than a sole focus on North Korea.
The addition of China as a driver for trilateral coordination marks a notable shift in the dynamics of cooperation among the three countries. For over two decades, the United States has promoted trilateral policy coordination in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. Despite these efforts, U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateralism has periodically waxed and waned depending on the state of Japan-South Korea relations, political power transitions between progressive and conservative leaderships in South Korea, and the fluctuating priority placed on trilateralism within each U.S. administration.
The scope of trilateral coordination has traditionally been confined to policy toward North Korea because Japan and South Korea have historically held differing views on how to deal with China. However, China’s prioritization of “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” threats of coercion, and Sinocentrism rather than fair play and respect for the rule of law have incentivized the three governments to pursue enhanced trilateral coordination on China policy. Though North Korea remains a shared concern, the current alignment of threat perceptions regarding China among all three countries is the main driver for deeper coordination that has enabled the realization of the Camp David summit.
The Camp David Principles agreed to by the three leaders offers a clear statement of solidarity on the goal of “complete denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in accordance with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions,” the commitment to address both human rights and humanitarian issues and pursue dialogue with North Korea with no preconditions, and support for “a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.” But North Korea is likely to interpret these objectives as hostile attacks on its legitimacy and desire to win international acknowledgment as a self-described “responsible nuclear state.” Thus, the deadlock over North Korea’s denuclearization appears likely to remain as intractable as ever.
But the envisioned scope of trilateral coordination among the three countries extends beyond North Korea, and this is what is new. The Camp David summit statements envision a breadth and frequency of bureaucratic coordination among the three countries that is intended to compartmentalize bureaucratic cooperation on China policy from the vagaries of domestic political polarization and from shifts that might occur as a result of transitions in political power in each country. In the words of Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the National Security Council Kurt Campbell, the three leaders intend to “lock in” trilateral policy coordination in order to provide policy consistency regardless of shifts in political leadership. The envisioned coordination process will have to both gain institutional momentum and enjoy broad and deep public support in all three countries over the next year or so to become irreversible.
In all probability, China’s defense of its “core interests” will continue to generate coercive behaviors that will unite like-minded countries in response to China’s “might makes right” approach to the world. But it is also possible that China could utilize charm diplomacy and offer generous economic packages to pursue cooperation with a willing member of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea coalition. Such efforts could thereby generate impediments to effective trilateral policy coordination, especially in the aftermath of a political power transition in any of the three countries.
Another impact of the Spirit of Camp David is the possibility that deepening U.S.-Japan-South Korea coordination may generate a tit-for-tat response from China, North Korea, and Russia that enables the deepening of cooperation among the coalition countries. Although one can be rather confident that North Korea’s historic unilateralism and go-it-alone approach will cause the country to maintain a certain amount of distance from China and Russia, respectively, closer U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral coordination appears to have induced China, North Korea, and Russia to strengthen their own policy coordination.
The November 2022 Phnom Penh Statement by the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea signaled shared threat perceptions toward both China and North Korea and an intent to develop a coordinated response to such threats. In response, North Korea invited senior representatives from China and Russia to ceremonies and a parade marking the seventieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean Armistice Agreement, or what North Korea refers to as “Victory Day,” on July 27, 2023.
Aside from joint attendance at the parade, however, Kim Jong Un’s hosting of his visitors was handled primarily through separate bilateral dialogues with Chinese Communist Party Central Committee member Li Hongzhong and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. The presence of Defense Minister Shoigu appeared to take priority for Kim in the context of active discussions about North Korea’s provision of munitions for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and ways in which Russia might assist North Korea’s missile and satellite development and meet North Korea’s economic needs.
North Korea’s hosting of Chinese and Russian representatives came weeks prior to the Camp David meeting, in which Biden, Yoon, and Kishida discussed ways to integrate detection, tracking, and joint response capabilities to North Korean missile launches, committed to annual trilateral defense exercises, and established a new trilateral working group focused on deterring North Korean efforts to utilize cybertheft to fund its missile development program.
Two weeks following the Camp David summit, Kim Jong Un described the three leaders as “gang bosses” at a North Korean naval celebration and criticized the announcement of trilateral military exercises as “reckless confrontational moves of the U.S. and other hostile forces” that contributed to instability and raised the risk of nuclear war.
Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a satellite launch facility in eastern Russia in mid-September, where both leaders underscored their opposition to U.S. imperialist forces and signaled their intent to deepen defense cooperation. In the run-up to those meetings, Russia’s Ambassador to North Korea Aleksandr Matsegora floated the possibility that China, North Korea, and Russia might also hold trilateral military exercises, despite the likelihood that North Korea would not be able to make significant contributions.
The development of an interactive response cycle and deepening of trilateral defense coordination between the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the one hand and China, North Korea, and Russia on the other hand will deepen competition and impede prospects for cooperation between the two coalitions. The rise of a tit-for-tat cycle between the two coalitions eases North Korea’s isolation and deepens its dependency on external partners in return for greater protection from UN sanctions.
The Camp David summit affirms a trilateral solidarity among the United States, Japan, and South Korea in approaching North Korea that is stronger than before, but that development is occurring at the same time that the scope and depth of trilateral policy coordination have expanded to include China. Expressed solidarity among the three countries on policy toward North Korea is unlikely to get lost in the shuffle, but the expansion of focus to include China and the development of a negative cycle between opposing trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea and China-North Korea-Russia coalitions are new factors likely to influence both North Korea’s perception of and responses to the Camp David declarations.
The article was originally published on Global NK by the East Asia Institute.