Trilateral Security Cooperation: Implementing the Spirit of Camp David

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

John E. Merow Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Scott A. Snyder

Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Sang Hyun Lee

President, Sejong Institute

Jaechun Kim

Professor, Sogang University

Komei Isozaki

Japan Chair Fellow, Hudson Institute

Andrew I. Yeo

Senior Fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair, Brookings Institution

On August 18, 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met at Camp David for the first stand-alone trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan summit. The Camp David Summit represented the start of a new era of trilateral partnership for the three countries and resulted in The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States, which outlined an enhanced and forward-looking vision for trilateral cooperation.

This workshop, held in cooperation with the Sejong Institute, brought together prominent U.S. and South Korean specialists to discuss the future of U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateralism. 


SMITH: Good morning, everyone. I know you’re a little surprised to see me at the head of the table. I’m Sheila Smith. I am the John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I am pinch-hitting for a few minutes for Scott Snyder, our Korea fellow here, who had the wonderful opportunity of flying to Saudi Arabia to interview—to introduce and interview President Yoon for a large investment conference there. So when Scott comes back, we’re going to pepper him with questions about how that went and what he asked the president of South Korea. So he is on his way from Dulles as we speak, so I’m just going to get us started this morning.

I wanted to welcome everyone. This is the third or fourth of these regular CFR-Sejong Institute dialogues/workshops, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending at least three of them, maybe not all of them. But it’s been a terrific moment for me always to catch up with what’s happening not only in the trilateral relationship, but also what’s happening in South Korea. So we’re delighted to welcome you back.

I would—I’m going to read some opening remarks from Scott because he has an assignment for this day for all of you, so I don’t want to lose focus on that assignment. But I just wanted to note that, you know, when we were here last year, we were really talking about the Phnom Penh statement, the Indo-Pacific framing of the trilateral, and how important that was, how different that was, and in some ways how ambitious that was. Well, a lot has happened over the course of the year.

We have had—obviously, in the U.S.-ROK relationship, we’ve had a summit meeting. We’ve had the Washington Declaration on extended deterrence. We’ve had incredible progress, I would say, in the Japan-ROK relationship, that bilateral, with—because of the heavy lifting, I think, especially by President Yoon but also Prime Minister Kishida. We’ve had progress that I wouldn’t have anticipated when we met here last year.

But we’ve also had events around the globe that also frame the way this trilateral is considered and the kinds of conversations that President Biden, President Yoon, and Prime Minister Kishida had at Camp David this last August. And that is, of course, now we have one war in Europe and we are on the verge of—hopefully not, but we are on the verge of intense conflict in the Middle East. And so we cannot anymore see what happens in Northeast Asia as being regional or local. The connections around the globe are immensely visible today in ways I think they weren’t quite so visible last year. And I’m thinking here, obviously, of President Putin’s visit—not President Putin’s visit; I’m sorry—Kim Jong-un’s visit to Moscow to see President Putin. So the Moscow-DPRK axis is incredibly important in our conversations today as well.

So let me start, then, by laying out the framework. I’m just going to read Scott’s remarks because they’re quite—they’re quite carefully framed and I want to make sure that we’re true to his wishes for how to think about today. Again, he wanted to share his welcome to all of you, especially President Lee and your colleagues, and he wanted to focus on prospects for trilateral relations following the landmark Camp David summit.

That summit emphasized institutionalization of cooperation, and many of you probably read Scott’s writing at the time, so much that my first question to the Korea Desk director at State following the summit was whether or not the three sides are coordinating their out-of-office messages with each other. In any event, Scott says, we have a compelling agenda consisting of three panels, each of which are about a particular dimension of the trilateral relationship. We have a real organizing theme regarding the value of and prospects for trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. And we must talk about it, he believes, while it lasts, not least because it provides a benchmark for assessment as well as creating an infrastructure that ultimately should resist de-institutionalization in facing our common threats. And I really wanted to include that language because Scott feels very strongly that the need for assessing how this institutionalization is going to take place, whether it is resilient, and what its prospects for expansion in terms of an agenda could look like.

So, he goes on, we will examine the trilateral relationship’s main subjects: the prospects and constraints around trilateral cooperation; the implications of trilateral cooperation for the regional dynamics, especially in the Indo-Pacific; and the trilateral cooperation’s impact on security and political issues. He wants to make sure that we look at the opportunities for and benefits of trilateral cooperation now and in the future, and how we can find practical suggestions for strengthening the U.S.-ROK-Japan relationship.

So those are—those are Scott’s—that’s his guidance for our conversation this morning. Let me turn the mic over now to my colleague, President Lee, for his remarks. President Lee?

LEE: Well, thank you, Sheila, for a very nice introduction.

Well, I’m happy to be back to a CFR meeting. The last one was June, I think, you remember, last year. Well, Sejong has operated the so-called Seoul-Washington Forum for quite a long time, and recently we are working with CFR more frequently than any other institution in Washington, DC. And of course, thanks for Scott and Sheila for your cooperation to hosting today’s meeting.

Well, this year’s meeting is quite unique, I think. As the title says, this is the—the whole focus is trilateral security cooperation between United States, Japan, and South Korea. So, as the title says, “Beyond the Camp David Summit.” So how can we make that spirit of Camp David sustainable and more solid—stand on a more solid basis in the future?

The reason why I’m saying is quite obvious. If you look at domestic politics of the three nations, for example, South Korea has a general election next year, early next year; the United States will have a presidential election in next year, too; and we don’t know what would happen after Prime Minister Kishida. So we count on—heavily on three big leaders’ decision and initiative to make Camp David, but what would happen if we go beyond that three personal chemistry in this trilateral security cooperation? As Sheila mentioned about, the key may be the institutionalization. But again, we are facing a lot of challenges.

After I decided the topic with Scott, unfortunately, Israel-Hamas conflict began. And because of that, many experts’ attentions are fully absorbed in that incident. And also, not just the Israel-Hamas conflict; already, we see that one big flashpoint is in Ukraine and European continent and European theater. And that will have some connections with Taiwan/South China Sea issue. And that, again, will eventually lead to some contingency in Korean Peninsula. So, we see increasingly integrated single theater all over the world. That’s why we are looking at how can we contribute to stabilize and maintain, expand our cooperation in this critically turbulent era in global issues.

So this year, because of that, I and Scott decided to put—to frame this conference as a trilateral as much as we can. So that’s why we are—we tried to put many Japan experts in this room, and thanks for that—(laughs)—Sheila and many other Japan experts who are joining today.

And also, I don’t know how much we can make some consolidated advice to either Korean government or U.S. government or Japan government, but nevertheless let’s try our best. So, we need to show that this is the way that trilateral security cooperation should go in the future. And also, I hope to—indeed, hope to see that three nations come up with some more firm foundation to maintain and sustain this trilateral security cooperation.

And thank you once again to joining today’s event. I know that all of you are very busy, but thank you very much for joining today’s meeting. Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you very much, President Lee.

Before I turn the microphone over to our presider for panel one, I wanted to alert you that this session—this opening session, as well as the next session, will be covered by the press. You’ll see many of members of the press in the back row. So it will be on the record. And following this workshop, a transcript of the discussions will be available on’s website.

So, without further ado, I think we should move into the conversation on the security relationship between—or the strategic relationship between the United States, the ROK, and Japan. And for that, Dr. Kim, I’m going to turn the gavel over to you as presider. Thank you very much.

KIM: Am I the presider?

LEE: (Laughs.) Oh. Oh, I’m the presider.

KIM: I think I am one of the—(laughs)—

SMITH: Oh, you’re the presider? I am so sorry. I turned to my left. I just assumed you’re speaking. I apologize. Back to President Lee.

LEE: OK. No problem. (Laughter.)

The first session will directly talk about trilateral security cooperation. How can we implement the spirit of Camp David? As you all know, at Camp David summit, three important document were signed. And one is the “Camp David Principles,” and the other one is “The Spirit of Camp David,” and the last one is the “Commitment to Consult.” So, I think that this Camp David summit really laid down some good foundation for institutionalizing trilateral security cooperation. But is it guaranteed? I’m not sure. That depends on how much three nations work together to push this idea forward. So that’s the key topic of this session.

And for that purpose, we invite four speakers from both Korea and the United States. And I would like to urge each panelist to limit initial remark over five or seven minutes and to allow more time for a free discussion.

So, Dr. Kim, you are the first.

KIM: OK. Thank you. Thank you very much.

SMITH: I think you can just leave it—it’s OK.

KIM: Oh, OK. All right.

Thank you, Sejong and CFR, for putting this all together here today. And I feel very honored to be a part of this important venue at this critical juncture in the future of international order.

Speaking of critical juncture, I think Camp David summit was very timely at this juncture in the future of rule-based international order. So now it’s the matter of how we can implement Camp David spirit. And seems to me that there is an agreement here. Experts all seem to agree that key to success is to secure durability, or sustainability if you will, and key to secure durability is none other than institutionalization. So, if you read Camp David spirit carefully—I read Camp David spirit very carefully—and three countries really went great length—great length—to institutionalize the security cooperation.

I think the underlying rationale there is that if we can somehow institutionalize cooperation, you know, three-country cooperation can be relatively, relatively insulated changes—you know, from changes in domestic politics. But I’m not really sure whether institutionalization is a sufficient condition for durability, because if a populist politician becomes a top leader in three countries it’s quite possible for this, you know, populist top leader to nullify even highly-institutionalized, you know, security agreement.

I mean, isn’t that exactly what happened to South Korea? You know, back in, you know—you know, when former President Moon Jae-in came into the office, he immediately nullified that comfort women agreement that former President Park Geun-hye entered into with, you know, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That was possible because there wasn’t really overwhelming popular support for that agreement in South Korea.

In the United States, you know, I remember President Donald Trump walking out from these highly institutionalized international agreements. That Paris Climate Agreement, you know, readily enters my mind. And I think that was possible because there wasn’t really a(n) overwhelming popular support for that climate deal in the United States.

So, the point I’d like to drive home here today is that even highly institutionalized agreements can fall victim to domestic political changes. So, sure, institutionalization is a necessary condition for durability, but not a sufficient condition.

So, in my personal opinion, I think it is very important for each country to mobilize strong and lasting popular support for trilateral cooperation. I mean, if there is popular support, enough popular support, even populist leaders will have hard time to nullify these security cooperative measures. I mean, I think populist leaders would go along with these popular sentiments. Isn’t that what populist leaders do, I mean, going along with popular sentiment?

So I’ll just talk about what Yoon Suk Yeol government will have to do more to garner stronger popular support in South Korea. I don’t know, you know, situations in the United States or in Japan, but I know one or two things about South Korean politics these days.

To me, you know, Yoon Suk Yeol government has been doing very well in terms of mobilizing popular support, but I think, you know, Yoon government will have to do more because Yoon government tends to emphasize that this trilateral cooperation was created, was formed to protect freedom and human rights, you know, these universalized values. You know, the government tends to portray trilateral cooperation as an extension of President Yoon’s value diplomacy. But Yoon government, I think, will have to do more to convince South Korean people that trilateral cooperation is more than about values and ideology. You know, he’ll have to emphasize that this trilateral cooperation is directly linked to South Korea’s core national interests.

To me, trilateral cooperation is really all about safeguarding rule-based liberal international order that is in jeopardy right now because revisionist countries are trying to rewrite this order to their liking. And I think South Korea’s interests really depend on the future of rule-based international order because rules-based international order operated as favorable environment—international environment—for South Korea’s prosperity. Sure, South Korea prospered because South Korean people are diligent, we had some good political leaders and business leaders as well. But in my personal opinion, rule-based international order was really a(n) international environment that was favorable for South Korea’s unprecedented prosperity. So for South Korea to prosper continuously, it is very important for South Korea to do more and do more proactively to protect and promote rules-based international order.

So, to me, I think trilateral cooperation is not just about value and ideology. Not that I’m saying that these values are unimportant; they are very important. But to South Korea, it should be more than about value and ideology because South Koreans are getting a little tired of listening to value and ideology. So it should come as—to them as more tangible or palpable benefits to more South Korean people. That way, we can mobilize some kind of lasting, you know, popular support in South Korea. Otherwise, you know, many South Koreans would continuously wonder, “what really is in it for us?” I mean, the trilateral cooperation, it’s good, but what is in it for us in this trilateral cooperation? What is in it for us in this Indo-Pacific? What is in it for us in Taiwan Strait? And what is in it for us in South China Sea disputes?

So I think, other than institutionalization, it’s very important for each country to mobilize some kind of lasting popular support.

I’ll probably have to pause here. I got one more point—

LEE: Yeah. You have already spent seven minutes, so. (Laughter.)

KIM: OK. I’ll just right there pause.

LEE: So thank you. (Laughs.) Sorry for not giving you enough time. (Laughs.)

KIM: That’s all right.

LEE: OK. Next speaker is Komei Isozaki from—who is Japan Chair fellow, Hudson Institute. Please go ahead.

ISOZAKI: Good morning, everyone. Can you hear?

SMITH: Yeah. These, just to remind everybody, just leave them where they are on the table. They will pick up, so you don’t have to turn them on or off or move them. We have a technical expert in the back who will keep us—keep us straight.

ISOZAKI: OK. Thank you.

It is a great honor and privilege to attend this panel with great scholars. Thank you for inviting me to this occasion. And also, this is—I think it’s a pleasure for me to discuss so important issues with experts from the Americans and Korean colleagues. Thank you.

I agree—totally agree with Professor Kim’s statement. I just gathered some words from his initial statements, the sustainability and the durability of the trilateral cooperation and, hopefully, bilateral cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. I also heard the same sense from the—in the Camp David summit’s documents/agreements about the three leaders’ recognized importance of institutionalized cooperations and consultations. And then I felt there had been a lot of necessity and needs of cooperation in these three Asian allies and partners, and there are so many accumulations. And then, from my background in the government as a practitioner, there are so many necessities and needs and discussions in the past. Sometimes the politics prevented us to go further, but there are so many momentum right now. So I think we should capture this opportunity to institutionalize and deepen the cooperations.

So from the agreements and discussion in the Camp David and other meetings over this summer, I got the sense they had, I think, common understanding of importance of—strategic importance of the trilateral cooperations and their position to oppose unilateral change of the status quo by force. And this is—I think relates to the issues in the Indo-Pacific. Also, Russian invasion of Ukraine had a(n) impact. And also realized, both in Asia and Europe, the commonality of the safeguarding the rule-based international order. And then it’s not very easy, and so we need to push and push to keep this order, because international architecture is now kind of very on the shaky ground.

They also discussed about the free and open Indo-Pacific. I believe this is a very rare idea from the Japanese side that lasted and also expanded to the—incorporated into the Americans’ and other countries’ broader agendas. So, every measures Japan takes in the defense and security policies, that is reflected in the three strategic documents released last December of every—almost every—measures is kind of explained and talked on the context of free and open Indo-Pacific. We call it FOIP.

So, the three leaders discussed how they cooperate and coordinate their policies on Pacific Islands and ASEAN countries on this—on the FOIP context. I thought it’s important they discuss critical technologies cooperations, supply—how to strengthen supply chains in the economic field. So I think this will be further discussed this afternoon here.

Also, using the Camp David gathering, Japan and South Korea had held bilateral meetings and then agreed on some financial/energy cooperations and also some strategic-level dialogues, including high-level economic consultations. So, they also welcome the, of course, trilateral agreement to bring those cooperation to a higher level and upgrading the cooperations.

I found in the U.S.-Japan bilateral context they—it was interesting to see they agreed to cooperate and exchange information on the security of Taiwan Strait. Also, they agreed on glide-phase interceptor—GPI—so joint development in the future. So they welcomed this new motivations.

So, what are important in these meetings—importance and significance of these meetings?

In East Asia, North Korea remains and continues to be challenges. And they develop missiles and nuclear weapons.

The People’s Republic of China is escalating an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas, and probably elsewhere as well, which have significant implications for the security of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States.

Despite these circumstances, it had been difficult to hold a Japan-ROK summit meeting in the past—Japan-U.S.-ROK summit meeting—mainly due to the estrangement between Japan and ROK. However, that changed under the change of the South Korean presidency, and also the—probably leadership and courage of President Yoon. So, in the NATO summit July this year, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the prime minister of Japan and the president of South Korea, as well as the Australia and New Zealand prime ministers, attended the NATO summit. And they each agreed on an individually tailored partnership program with NATO. So these are very common and similar. So, this reflects, as I mentioned, some commonality and realization of challenges in the European/Atlantic theater and Asia-Pacific.

The recent consecutive agreements and readings to strengthen the strategic coordination of the U.S.-Japan alliance and U.S.-ROK alliance, and take the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral security cooperation to new heights, is a major strategic step forward. I took three issues from them—among them. The first is a commitment to consult among Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States. The fact that the three leaders took the trouble of drafting the document called the “Commitment to Consult” is, I think, a reflection of the awareness of the major problems with the past inability to hold even consultations. It is also noteworthy that joint statement specifically mentions regular consultation between the ministers of defense and the director-generals of the national security staff, in addition to the ministers of foreign affairs.

Second point is the trilateral exercise plan. The United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea decided on a multi-year trilateral framework that includes annual named and multidomain trilateral exercises, building upon the understanding reached by the defense ministers meeting in July 2023 and Shangri-La dialogue, and as well as recent successful trilateral ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises. So, although it appears too little and too late, considering the common strategic and tactical challenges they have faced in the past, but it is an absolutely important effort for the enhancement of the integrated deterrence among the three countries.

A third point is they agreed on the countermeasures against disinformation, cybersecurity, and even the sharing data of missile warning. Recently, the spread of information has become more rapid and easier with the development of the internet and social media. Against this backdrop, the proliferation of disinformation has become a more serious problem, partly due to advances in photo editing and deep-fake technologies. It has been mentioned in the recent UN documents and NATO statements as well. And it is very natural that the United States, Japan, and South Korea should discuss information-sharing and countermeasures on these issues.

Finally, I want to touch upon some challenges and expectations from my personal point of view. Strengthening security relations between Japan and South Korea, particularly both allies of the United States and geographically so close to each other, these are the most important initiative for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Although disagreements remain over issues such as history and territorial issues, I believe the strengthening security relations between Japan and South Korea, from a broader and long-term perspective rather than as a tool for domestic political struggle, is essential for the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. I hope the agreement reached at Camp David will be the foundation for further discussions at coming summits and working levels to promote the concrete cooperation agenda without interruption. I’ll stop here. Thank you.

LEE: Thank you.

Well, Sheila, you’re the next one.

SMITH: I’m the next. Great, thank you. So I—you know, since I am the next one, I have listened to Professor Kim, and Isozaki-san. And lots of what they’ve said will be reiterated. So I’ll try and be very brief on some of the places. We agree on a lot. Scott gave us some questions to answer, some of which were about what actually happened at Camp David. And I think that the two previous speakers have covered that very extensively. I would just say here, and what I said in my opening remarks, I think the commitment of all three leaders to a strategic relationship that is far grander than any of the ambitions that you’ve heard out of these—of previous leaders of these three countries in the past is important to recognize. We are no longer in the space of building trust or restoring relations. We are actually now in a much, much different place for this trilateral.

I also think it reiterates what we talked about last year, which is that this is—this relationship is not just about peninsular security. It is also largely about this broader fundamental axis of leverage in the Indo-Pacific, as well as now a catalytic partnership globally for support of the status quo or the rules-based order, whichever language you prefer. It’s ambitious, what came out of Camp David. And I think that’s good. Maybe because I’m the American on the panel, or one of the Americans on the panel, I like the ambition. But there’s several things here too that are new. And we’re going to talk a little bit more about that this afternoon.

One of it is the emerging goals among the United States and its allies on economic security cooperation, which is a new dimension, I think, of this partnership that wasn’t developed before. And, again, it runs from global supply chains to new technologies, but also how to address potential economic coercion, which wasn’t officially in the statement but has very much been on the minds of the three countries over the last year.

Again, heeding Scott’s advice that we think about what institutionalization actually looks like, how do we develop metrics for evaluating whether the Camp David ambitions are successful, I just wanted to be slightly political science-y—not fully—and put forward a couple of ways we could think about this word “institutionalization.” One is what we’ve referenced, and I think all of us appreciate, are these new frameworks, the leaders meetings themselves annually, right? The regularization of the national security advisors meetings, our joint chief meetings, intel meetings, right?

But also something that I think both Professor Kim and Isozaki-san mentioned, which is the Indo-Pacific voice in the NATO conversation as well. That linkage between U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific and European allies in NATO is also, I believe, one of the focal points that will be important as a new framework of coordination. So, it’s a three plus three. I mean, this is new, but it’s at a much higher level and much more of a regional and global level than it’s ever been in the past.

The second way, and the second set of metrics, of course, are fuzzier. And this is—you know, it’s hard to be specific about, but it is norms. And this is where the ideology and the emphasis, I think, particularly President Yoon but also Prime Minister Kishida and clearly President Biden, on values. We won’t say democracy as a word out loud, but clearly the values-based collaboration here is very important to the success of this trilateral. So as we look forward to evaluate it, how much are these norms continuing to be embedded in the way in which the trilateral sees its future, not only in the region but globally and beyond?

And then finally, political scientists like to talk about institutionalization as behavior, patterns—regularized patterns of behavior. And this, in the military security dimension, of course, as Isozaki-san just mentioned, will be traditional exercises. We just a couple of days ago had the first trilateral in-region aerial exercise. It included U.S. strategic forces supported by our two allies. There was a maritime debate—maritime exercise conversation led by the Seventh Fleet commander in the Indo-Pacific not that long ago. Cyber will be another area.

But behaviorally, the security angle will be very important to keep an eye on. But so too will be what Professor Kim emphasized. And that is the focus on economic mechanisms for collaboration and cooperation. And I think we have to continue to look behaviorally at just how regularized these consultations will be and how much agreement there will be on specific courses of action together on some of these very critical pieces of the puzzle. So again, just to answer Scott’s assignment that we think about how are we going to judge this in hindsight not just what the document said, but as we look forward what are we looking for? I think these three different ways of thinking about institutionalization might help us begin that conversation.

One of the big pieces of Scott’s assignment to this panel in particular was this leadership transition. Will this trilateral and the enthusiasm that we saw at Camp David—will it continue beyond the three people who were attending Camp David? And, of course, you know, our election looms large, so let me start there. If the incumbent wins, if President Biden is elected to a second term, I think we can be fairly confident that this model for upping the game of the trilateral, but also giving it an agenda for collaboration—I think this approach will continue. The momentum could be bigger or smaller, or lesser or greater, but it will clearly be the piece of homework that the president has already set out for himself and his team.

If a challenger wins, I would say—and I’ll just—you know, these are personal opinions. These do not reflect anything more than that. I’m not a specialist in American politics, and who knows—(laughs)—really what’s going to happen. But I think you can already see that there’s different strands within the Republican Party on thinking about our foreign policy that have emerged in the debates, and in some of the comments by some of the individuals. I would suggest that former President Trump and Mr. Ramaswamy are, by their very nature, anti-institutionalists. They don’t want institutionalized cooperation. And that’s at home and abroad. So I wouldn’t expect if either of those two candidates look like they are about to take office—do not expect this to be the model for them to think about the relationships. Not specific to the trilateral, but just generally.

The other is—the other strain of thinking, and this is something to watch as we approach the general election on the Republican side, is how the Republican nominee feels about our alliances. Are they transactional relationships? Are they—do they need to be defined in terms of what Americans get out of them, and that be in the security realm or the trade realm? Or do they see them larger as an expression of American power and coalition—by extension, coalition power abroad?

That is not a language you might hear from the candidates, but I suspect that among the candidates that we’re all seeing on the debate stage, there is different pieces of that puzzle. And I don’t think everybody sees our alliances as transactional. And I would expect that that was a—that’s another theme to listen to going forward. I will not presume to talk about South Korean politics, so I’m going to leave that to our South Korean colleagues. I will say a word about Japanese politics. Prime Minister Kishida will need to call an election. And there’s some Japan experts in the room who can contribute to this conversation.

It’s still not off the table that he calls the election this year, in my view. He just said—the LDP just had a mixed result in a couple of by-elections in the country, which will probably dissuade the party from wanting to rush into a general election. But nonetheless, you will have to see an election in Japan at some point or the other. I don’t think an election in Japan will be necessarily bad for the trilateral.

And that’s based on two assumptions on my part. One is Japan now has a fairly ambitious national defense policy and security agenda of its own that the trilateral will factor into. The other is that the Japanese public is watching the region and the world very closely, and are far more worried about who’s going to be there to partner with Japan than they might have been in the past. So I think there’s a deeper engagement, even if it’s not visibly demonstrated politically. But there’s a deeper engagement in Japan on the on the possibility of stronger trilateral cooperation, at least on the security side of the equation. So that’s what my assumptions are for the Japan piece.

One last piece on the leadership transitions, and then I believe my time will be up. And that is that the Chinese government has been fairly active in trying to influence elections. There’s another election that’s going to happen that is not this—all three of the members of this trilateral, but is the Taiwan election in January. We should watch that carefully. It’s not unimportant for the kinds of issues and the agendas we’re trying to build in the trilateral. But we should also watch—and, again, I invite my South Korean colleagues to help us understand this over here—the Chinese are also fairly interested in affecting South Korean public opinion as well, prior to your election in April. So I don’t know if that’s a huge factor as you look at your own South Korean politics, but it’s something I think collectively we should keep an eye on as well.

Let me just conclude with something that I hope we’ll talk more about on the security side, which is Scott’s reference to competing trilaterals. And that would be China-Russia-DPRK versus U.S.-Japan-Korea. You know, peninsular security always brings us back to the position where we need more and deeper intelligence sharing. China and Russia are also no longer active supporters of the nonproliferation agenda of the UN Security Council, which gives us pause, obviously. But I think also, I’d love to hear from our South Korea experts, what you think about the Russia-DPRK deal that was made when Kim went to Moscow, and the evidence at the cross-border that there’s a lot more cross-border activity between North Korea and Russia as a result. So any information that you can share with us on your assessment of that, it obviously affects deterrence. It affects deterrence rather critically for the peninsula, but also, obviously, for Japan as well. So let me stop there. Thank you very much.

LEE: OK, thank you.

Our last speaker is Andrew Yeo.

YEO: Thanks, Dr. Lee. Thank you to you and your organization for bringing together a great team to discuss with us the trilateral. And also thank you to Scott and Sheila and CFR for organizing this session. So I, like Sheila, did—I felt like I did a good job in the homework that we were tasked to do from Scott. But because I don’t want to repeat everything that was said, I’m going to just throw that out the door. And then Shelia got me all excited. She triggered the professor side of me when she talked about political science and institutionalization.

So let me just start there, because we all agree that institutionalization is what the trilateral needs at the moment. I think, Sheila, you did a fantastic job drilling down what we mean by institutionalization. It means having more frameworks or working groups—so that’s the structural institutional aspect. There is the normative cultural part, what you refer to as behavioral. But once you keep meeting, it becomes routine. I would say that—I would add one more thing to that, and that’s really the agency or sort of the people-to-people interactions. Of course, that goes across all these things, but I think that’s also an important element of institutionalization, making sure that people are engaging and interacting frequently.

That comes along with having new frameworks, but I think that’s important because one of the fears is that when you do institutionalize, sometimes you run into institutional inertia. You just kind of move without thinking. And I do think because the geostrategic environment is changing quite rapidly, that you do have to think about the people-to-people element. Not only at the level of governments, not only the leaders, but also civil society, students, youth, you know, different sectors of society. So I agree with the institutionalization.

I think what I wanted to address, you know, the first part I was going to talk a lot about just what had happened at the summit. But I think we all know what happened. Here in the United States, of course, everyone was ecstatic. We saw the images from Camp David. And so it was certainly an event to be celebrated. Let me just say a few positive signs that came out after the Camp David meeting in the two months, I think, since that historic meeting. And then I’ll address a few concerns that I have about trilateral relations moving forward. And then offer some prescriptions or some, you know, things that I think we—either in the think tank community and also our governments—can do to strengthen the spirit of Camp David.

In terms of positive signs, so there’s this huge meeting. There’s lots of—there’s a long to-do list that was offered there. There’s, like, more than a dozen things that I think they mentioned the United States, Japan, and Korea could do on defense, on economic security, on science and technology cooperation, clean energy, climate, and so forth. But, of course, you can’t move that fast. A lot of this is still aspirational. But some of the things that did happen—one is that we are continuing to see deepening military cooperation. As Sheila pointed out, South Korea, the United States, and Japan a few days ago conducted their first ever trilateral aerial exercise in response to North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats.

Another positive sign is that I think domestically, at least, there’s pretty strong support for trilateral cooperation in all three countries. That doesn’t mean that the leadership has a lot of domestic support, but at least – and I’ll get to that piece in a second—but at least for now the publics in Korea, Japan, and the United States look at cooperation with the United States or the trilateral in a favorable light. And then lastly, there was some fear about irritants getting in the way of further cooperation. So the Fukushima nuclear wastewater that was released, I know that there was a lot of concerns even in the steps leading up to the Camp David meeting. But that seems to have managed—been managed so far. There were some issues about territorial disputes with Dodko/Takeshima, but those have not really erupted to the surface to derail trilateral cooperation.

So things seem to be moving ahead. But in terms of some of the concerns I have, and I think pretty much everyone in this room is familiar with the domestic politics particularly in South Korea. And I know Sheila didn’t touch on that, and I’d love to hear more from our South Korean colleagues. But Yoon’s public opinion polls are way down again in the last week or so. It’s, like, at 25 percent. And I think something is definitely going on with his party, with the conservative PPP, People’s Power Party. And because of these local elections that took place in a Seoul district, the PPP got trounced. A lot of Koreans are taking that as a litmus test for what’s going to happen in the midterm elections. And already, you know, the opposition has never really given a whole lot of support to Yoon for trilateral cooperation. So this doesn’t bode well for, I think, South Korea or the Yoon administration’s agenda.

So, again, I think the domestic politics piece hasn’t been addressed. And here in the United States, I think, we’re so focused on, I guess, foreign policy/foreign relations that I think in DC, at least, we need to pay more attention to what’s happening on the ground. And I think there is some more attention, because there’s these nuggets of—you know, we’re hearing from our South Korean counterparts that there’s trouble within the Yoon government. And so I think that’s something that needs to be watched.

Sheila had talked about the U.S. elections with Trump. I guess my own take as well as is that, you know, if Trump were elected, that does not bode well also for trilateral cooperation because we know his attitudes about alliances. I would say, you know, Shelia was mentioning that you have to look at how Republican candidates talk about alliances, how they’re framing the alliance. There’s that dimension. And the other dimension also is how Republican candidates look at spending on things like defense, their spending on issues related to foreign policy.

You know, there’s a correlation perhaps between those that are more aligned in the Trump camp and how they think about spending. But that has implications because a lot of the trilateral cooperation revolves around exercises, like, things like joint exercises. And that costs money. And Trump thinks that these things are too expensive. Why are we paying for them? Or why are we—you know, why are we doing this? Why do we need to do this? I think that could spell trouble for trilateral cooperation. So, yeah, it’s not—I think we recognize here that the domestic politics need—that that can be a problem or a concern for the trilateral cooperation moving forward.

I also think the other global events, the Israel-Hamas situation, of course, it doesn’t directly relate to Northeast Asia or trilateral cooperation. But it is taking up a lot of the bandwidth of the Biden administration. It’s sucking a lot of air. Now, the folks who work on Asia, they’re going to continue to work on trilateral cooperation. They’re going to continue working with their Korean and Japanese counterparts. But it does mean that Biden—the administration can’t really give a lot of political cover or a big boost if there are any issues that erupt on U.S.-Japan-Korea relations.

OK, in terms of prescriptions then. So, we already mentioned, what can we do to further enhance and implement the spirit of Camp David—points that were that were raised? So we already mentioned institutionalization. And this comes—and we’re already seeing this continue on the defense, the military front. The economic security issues, which we’ll cover later in the afternoon, I mean, that’s where there’s a lot of room for growth. There’s these working groups for supply chain resilience. There’s ongoing conversation about building early warning systems to global supply chain disruptions. I think those are things that can go forward.

Coordination on AI governance, you know, collaboration on science technology, including cooperation across national labs, these were things that were in the joint statement at Camp David. And I think those are all areas where we are going to see further implementation.

So institutionalization is one. The second—and this is more a suggestion for those here in the United States—I think we have to have more discussions with the opposition or the progressive side of, you know, the Democratic Party in Korea just to understand what they’re thinking but also to build constructive views about the U.S.-Japan-Korea alliance and also to talk to them about North Korea-Russia relations.

But beyond just talking to the Democratic Party, I think South Korea needs to build more of a consensus on these issues related to China, related to the U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation. So, if there are ways where we can be helpful, especially in the think tank community, to engage with a variety of thought leaders in Korea—I think that would be helpful.

The third thing, I think, we can think about in terms of implementation is the regional cooperation aspect. I think China and Russia are really good at kind of giving their partners, you know, what they want without a lot of—necessarily a lot of strings attached.

I don’t know if it’s really about listening but they’re good at just giving countries what they want. That’s not the way the United States operates, of course, but I do think that we have to frame this as some—in a way where the U.S.-Japan-Korea is providing public goods or collective goods for the region. And so that’s where things like development finance or infrastructure investment come into handy, whether it’s in Southeast Asia or in the Pacific Islands.

I think those things really need to be emphasized to counter China and Russia’s narrative within the region. And as we know a lot of countries, especially in Southeast Asia, they like to think of it as, you know, having to choose between China or the United States and its allies. I think that’s a false dichotomy but I think the United States and its allies can do a better job on that front by actually talking much more about the different areas of—the different types of cooperation they’re doing within the region.

And that leads to my last point, and it might go a little bit against what Dr. Kim was saying about the values and the principles. I do get it that at some point values and principles, they sound hollow and that also ties in with, I think, President Yoon’s own kind of narrative and pushback and opposition that he has domestically. And people want to hear about interests. Why is the trilateral cooperation good? What does Korea get out of it?

I think that’s important. But I do think that what makes this trilateral really unique is kind of the shared principles and values. So if there’s a way to talk more about interests, but without dismissing the values and principles front, I think that would be—that would be helpful.

So I’ll hand it back to you, Dr. Lee.

LEE: Well, thank you. So while we are talking, finally, Scott joined us. Welcome back from Saudi Arabia.

YEO: Oh, hi, Scott. (Laughter.)

LEE: Well, I think we had very excellent presentations from four people. I feel at least one consensus in this room is like this: Camp David summit surely laid out some foundation to upgrade trilateral relationship one level up, but maybe we will have some challenges as well as some opportunities on how much can we implement this idea, the so-called institutionalization issue.

So from now on I’ll open the floor. And if you want to speak, please put your nametag upright and I will—OK, Jim, you are the first.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Lee.

Speaking about challenges, Sheila touched on a question that I wanted to raise was how this—we’re dealing with now, perhaps, a new emerging form of trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia among Russia, North Korea, and China and how might this affect U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation. So, I’d appreciate from our panelists their views on this subject.

LEE: OK. I will collect a few questions and we’ll continue discussion.

Toby, you are the next.

Q: Great. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn. This is all sort of additive to my understanding of these issues.

I guess the question that I had is how can we think about opportunities ahead for furthering objectives that might seem a little bit out of reach right now. So, for instance, we can imagine a seventh North Korean nuclear test; what kind of opportunity might that present to solidify some of the things that we would like to do. So what’s the agenda look like and how can we be opportunistic going forward and advancing it?



Q: I have two questions.

One is a follow-up on the China-Russia-North Korea side, and I’d like to know more about the South Korean reaction because we know that in Japan and the United States there has been a pretty strong reaction that this cements what we’ve been thinking and worrying about. Does this change South Korean thinking, progressive thinking in particular, in any substantial way?

And the other question is what is actually happening on the ground between South Korea and Japan over the last six to eight months? Is there a transformation? I know that tourism has picked up enormously. The South Koreans are going to Japan in very large numbers. Of course, the cheap yen makes that ever more valuable. But what about some of the other kinds of exchanges? There’s a lot of talk about Japanese companies hiring South Korean workers because there’s so much of a surplus in one country and a deficit in the other. So can we get a breakdown of what’s that doing to the feeling in South Korea particularly about the bilateral relationship?



Q: Thanks.

I’m not sure how to formulate a question around this, but it’s basically just asking how sustainable this all is without really grappling with what Andrew described as the irritants in the South Korea-Japan relationship—without really trying to resolve some of the history issues, let alone the territorial issues.

You know, I mean, the whole theory of this is that, you know, we can sort of focus on these bigger picture things and treat those issues as irritants. But, you know, that could blow up, as we’ve seen in the Middle East now where the theory was, OK, we have the Abraham Accords, right? That’s going to ignore the Palestinian issue and that clearly hasn’t worked out that well, at least in the near term.

So I’m not suggesting that we’re going to have a similar type of incident, of course, in Northeast Asia but still this is a theory and it could get put to the test. So how sustainable is it without dealing frontally with particularly some of the history issues between Japan and South Korea?



Q: I was delighted with the outcome of Camp David having worked in the vineyards of trilateral cooperation since the mid-nineties when I was at Pacific Command. Your comments today about institutionalization reminded me of Victor Cha’s memorable comment about the demons of history have so far over the last thirty years frustrated attempts at institutionalization with regard to trilateral cooperation. So, could we talk a little bit about—are those demons in the bottle right now or are they liable to leap right out again on us here with elections and what have you?

LEE: Thank you.

Takayuki? OK. After Takayuki we will give us some time for panel—to panelists to respond. OK.

Q: Thank you very much. Very important panel.

And I have a question to Dr. Kim, actually, because this kind of very memorial agreement is that, to me, the strong leadership by President Yoon is the most important. So that’s why I would like to understand what is the general public in South Korea’s accept(ance)—this kind of perception.

And also, you mentioned about how to make more popular in South Korea that were tangible achievement or tangible things is required. So what kind of tangible things that you—are in your mind? Thank you.

LEE: Well, thank you. I also have some question to panelists as well because we are already discussing about some negative influence from domestic politics. So I’m really concerned. The trilateral, what we agreed on Camp David—many documents were signed and at least there is some consensus about trilateral security cooperation.

But how much is in the national agenda rather than presidential agenda? So can this issue survive more than three leaders? So if we can make that live longer than a leadership term, so how can we make that happen in this issue?

So, now I’ll give you some time for each panelist to respond in the backward order, I think. So, Andrew, you first.

YEO: Sure. I’m going to group the questions from Mark, Admiral McDevitt, and you, Dr. Lee, because it’s really about the ability to sustain trilateral cooperation. Are the demons of cooperation in a box or can they be unleashed? They can definitely be unleashed. There’s no doubt about it, and I think that’s why in some ways the three leaders wanted to have this meeting at Camp David, to your question, Dr. Lee, because it would help quicken the pace and provide more political momentum for institutionalization.

But institutionalization can only get you so far. I think when you have militaries, when you have diplomats, when you have, you know, people at the NSC working together constantly on a regular basis it does create these connections and synergies. And so at least on the U.S. side if—and I mentioned if Trump is president it would spell some concerns for trilateral cooperation. I don’t think it would fall completely apart, but it wouldn’t have the momentum or the backing that I think the Biden administration has give—it doesn’t fall apart because at the working levels there is some continuity.

Of course, the bigger concerns is the South Korea-Japan leg of this relationship and to your question, Mark, I do think at some point the historical issues have to be addressed. I think the hope is that you could at least have a—create a floor on the alliance and have people, Koreans and Japanese, working together to build something forward before you go back and try to relitigate some of these past historical issues.

And that’s why I think a lot of the cooperation that takes place at the civil society level is super important with, you know, the students and with youth. I mean, we keep hearing—and I’d like to ask my Korean colleagues, you know—do Korean youth really have a different attitude or different thinking toward Japan because the assumption in the United States is, yes, the next generation or the current generation of young Koreans don’t have the same kind of attitudes toward Japanese as the elders. And I’m looking at Professor Sheen because he teaches and so he has access to many opinions of college students. So if you can enlighten us.

But I do think we have to get back to some of those historical issues and that there has to be more cooperation across civil society. The problem is we need more time. Two or three years is not enough and that’s the election cycle.

So we need successive leaders to be able to work on trilateral cooperation and I don’t—there’s no magic number. But let’s say, like, a decade—if there’s a decade of close cooperation between Japan and Korea on the security, on the military, on the economic front, and also people-to-people ties, then I think you might be able to address some of these historical issues.

I mean, a friend was reminding me that France and Germany, like, hated each other. You know, they were at war all the time. But forming a military alliance, it wasn’t just about the EU but it was really being part of a same alliance that was really—I don’t know if that’s the case or not but she was just mentioning that there are these cases where you had these enemies, you know, come together and actually respect one another and have a healthy relationship.

And so the hope is that Korea and Japan can address some of these historical grievances. But we need—we definitely need more time and I don’t know if we’re going to get it because of these, you know, finicky domestic politics that get in the way.

LEE: OK. Thank you.

Sheila, do you have some response?

SMITH: You know, I can’t actually answer any of the questions that you want me to answer so I’m in the same kind of ruminative framework here. Like, I don’t know. I mean, can the demons of—are the demons of history gone? No, of course not, and I do feel—I’m going to defer to the South Korean political experts here rather than me talk about South Korean politics. But a couple of notes on the Japanese side.

I hear often from Korean colleagues that Japan needs to be a little bit more forthright and more demonstrative in its embrace of President Yoon’s overtures. I think a lot of us may feel that way. I believe that there is not—and I’m not sure that Prime Minister Kishida has a weak political foundation but he doesn’t necessarily have a strong one as you look ahead in Japanese politics, and within the Liberal Democratic Party there is a variety of views as you know—as this audience knows well.

So I think the—and I think when Prime Minister Kishida went to Seoul prior to the May G7 meeting that was, I thought, a little overdue but I was glad to see it happen. I think now that the Camp David summit has happened there will be a—it will be with more ease that he’s able to embrace some of these goals.

I think the resistance that was in Japan was a, OK, here we go again; is this going to change later. So you’re going to hear this kind of skepticism, I believe, from the professionals, the diplomats, as well as from politicians in Tokyo.

So to a certain degree getting over that skepticism is still part of the homework of the trilateral. Doesn’t mean that the trilateral can solve the specific issues and I’ll leave it to our Korean colleagues to talk about the Supreme Court decision and how they are going to get to a point where the Supreme Court makes a choice about the Yoon administration’s approach to resolving the forced labor dispute. So I’d like to hear that. But I believe that domestic politics all around matter, not just the South Korean domestic politics.

On the new frameworks I am actually a little bit more hopeful maybe about the Indo-Pacific allies and NATO and not just in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But this is a bridging of common democracies, if you will, allies that has a lot of latitude, I think, to embed the Japan-South Korea relationship in a broader framing and I think those are the kinds of multilateral frameworks that could also be helpful for us to explore.

Let me stop there.


Let me see. Komei?

ISOZAKI: OK. Thank you. I’m not an expert on the Japanese politics itself like Sheila so I have to defer her. But in Japan, my sense is that there’s no strong opposition to trilateral cooperations or even the Korea-Japan bilateral cooperation.

So I don’t think any change of the prime ministers in the Japanese side wouldn’t affect the—this continuing the current institutionalization and the regularization of the meetings. And also I would suggest personally that South Korea and Japan cooperate and discuss quietly but, like, cybersecurities and then space cooperations or possibly maritime domain awareness—those areas that we can continue to discuss regardless of the political changes.

So maybe South Korean politics is maybe more complex but in the Japanese side there’s no big challenges to this practical cooperation like missile defense, data sharings. Of course, there are some technical changes or legal measures how to share, how to protect information. They exist, even between the United States and Japan. But in the practical areas I think we can go forward. Not—maybe quietly and gradually rather than making politics will interfere these cooperations.

About the territorial issues, I feel that through the Dokdo/Takeshima issue is not very popular topic among Japanese politicians compared to the Senkaku Islands issues where China challenges all the time and in the northern territories issue with Russians. Those are, I think, much bigger security challenges. And Dokdo/Takeshima issues is not from Japanese side, we can leave it quiet because we have—of course, Japan has Japan’s positions, but we don’t have to raise the issue very much.

So this is maybe challenging the—Mark’s proposal of the Abraham Accords type solutions. I don’t think history and territory issue is easily solved. So we—I think we need to put them aside and then focus on practical cooperation. That’s my view.

LEE: Thank you. Jaechun?

KIM: One thing about President Yoon Suk Yeol is that he’s immensely popular abroad. When he goes on, you know, business trip overseas, you know, he’s very much welcomed. But when he comes back to South Korea his approval rate plummets.

So, the prospect for next year’s general election, which is scheduled in April, is pretty gloomy. That special election was considered a referendum for President Yoon; the ruling party lost the special election big time by—what was the—lost big time by some 18 percentage points.

So it doesn’t really bode well for the future of Yoon Suk Yeol government. His approval rate on a good day it goes up to 35 percent. On a bad day it goes down, really, below 30 percent. And I think it’s very important for Yoon Suk Yeol government to succeed. If the opposition leader—this should go to your report actually—the opposition leader Lee Jae-myung comes into power, I think everything will go down in drains.

He’s a(n) extreme populist. He’s been riding on that anti-Japan sentiment. Yeah, it won’t come as a big surprise to me if he withdraws from all these treaties—I mean, agreements—that we entered into with each other.

So, you don’t have to like President Yoon Suk Yeol but you’ll have to help President Yoon Suk Yeol to succeed because it’s important for the future of trilateral cooperation. Sure, Lee Jae-myung might be able to recuperate or rescue the cooperation in the future but once you lose momentum I think it’s very difficult for us to, you know, keep that momentum going—I mean, revive that momentum and keep it going.

So I think it’s very important for Yoon Suk Yeol government to succeed for the future of trilateral cooperation. Whether there is a fundamental transformation has been taking place between South Korea and Japan I don’t know. It seems to me it’s more of a, you know, temporary rapprochement at best. So there I think it’s very important for two countries not to lose the momentum once again because once you lose the momentum it’s really difficult to rekindle that momentum and keep it going.

China—I mean, one way you can help President Yoon Suk Yeol is not to go too hard on China policy or, you know, Taiwan Strait policy. I think it’d be better for the United States and Japan, for that matter, to let South Korea go at its own pace with regard to China policy and Taiwan Strait policy.

Taiwan it’s still a hard sell—politically hard sell in South Korean domestic politics. So, yeah, Yoon Suk Yeol, I think, has thrown enough of rhetorical support to Taiwan Strait issue and I believe that there is a very close dialogue that is taking place between the two countries at official level with regard to what South Korea can contribute to if contingent situations arise over the Taiwan Strait.

Yeah, China—I mean, I think anti-China sentiment is record high in South Korea. It’s higher amongst younger generations so that’s something noteworthy, while younger generation in South Korea—their perception toward Japan is improving. So that bodes pretty well for the future of trilateral cooperation.

Just stick to my original position that institutionalization is not really sufficient. It is a necessary condition and I think it’s very important for Yoon Suk Yeol government to translate it. I’m not really saying that value and ideology aren’t important. I mean, they are very important. They’re something that three countries have in common, that’s for sure.

That said, I think it’s very important for President Yoon to translate the language of value into more substantial interests-based language because many South Koreans still wonder what really is in it for us in this trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and on.

So, I think there’s something that Yoon Suk Yeol government will have to do more to sustain lasting, popular support for trilateral cooperation, which is very, very important for the sustainability of trilateral cooperation. Thank you.

LEE: OK. Michael, you have two fingers.

Q: Professor Kim, just if I may, what is the feeling in South Korea toward Russia? You just mentioned attitudes toward China. How—what is the perception today?

KIM: I think many South Koreans do believe that this what I would call—how can I say—bloc-ization of the order is taking place in Northeast Asia. Russia is a(n) important stakeholder—used to be an important stakeholder country—you know, a permanent member of National Security Council.

But Russia is actually violating that UN resolution that they signed up for. So, I mean, it’s like Russia is an outcast—I mean, is totally ostracized because of their misbehavior. So, yeah, I mean, the images is not good really. I mean, the image that we have is that—I mean, at least China is still—is a revisionist country for sure but they are fighting this, you know, fight in the ring and they’re saying that, well, you know, Biden here is in violation. You know, hitting, you know, under the belt is in violation.

But, you know, the perception in South Korea is that Russia got out of the ring, is about to burn the ring right now with another outcast—you know, with Kim Jong Un here. So, yeah, it’s been downgrading and it’s—

Q: Yeah. I was waiting for Yoon to play the fear card. That’s what I was—China, Russia, North Korea. I mean—

KIM: Axis of evil, yeah.

Q: —there’s a fear card there that makes trilateral cooperation very important.

LEE: Yeah. Well, there’s a joke in Korea that we always—most people describe Russia as some sort of grizzly bear looking behind the tree—(laughs)—so we don’t want to make him angry. But, nevertheless, we want to make a good relationship because South Korea has a very, very wide variety of embedded interest—business interest in Russia. So you understand why that is the case.

OK. Sheila, you have something to say? Yeah.

SMITH: Actually, I think you both just commented on the Russia piece, which is helpful to me. So thank you. I don’t need to say anything. Thank you.

LEE: And also about Korea’s domestic politics—I tend to be increasingly cautious when I talk about Korean politics because as you understand in Korea discussion about domestic politics is extremely polarized. So Dr. Kim’s opinion is not Korean delegation opinion, so his personal opinion. I’m also—I have my personal opinion as well.

So perhaps for President Yoon the next big test will be general election coming next year, April. But as you know, currently his popularity is quite low and the ruling party does not have enough support from the people and already National Assembly is dominated by the opposition party—opposition party has the majority.

And if next year’s election—if opposition party still maintains the majority, what does that mean? It will be a real red light for President Yoon because it is directly connected to the next presidential election. So if that’s the scenario, maybe a liberal or Lee Jae-myung have more chance to be elected as president next—as the next South Korea’s president.

So, again, that scenario comes back to our discussion about trilateral security cooperation. As you know, in Korea liberals usually take the very harsh stance against Japan. So we all know that liberals always heavily criticize Japan for past historical issues, everything, even doing the comfort-women issue and forced-labor issue, and even South Korea’s Supreme Court decision. All those are connected, OK?

So that’s why I’m concerned. That’s why I’m saying that domestic politics may be most challenging issue in implementing trilateral security cooperation in the coming years.

So I remember, Robert, you’re the first. And I—there are so many plates here.

Audience: On this side of the room, too.

YEO: Maybe just go down the line.

Q: Just three quick points.

One, the domestic factor, I think, looms—I think just from what we’ve heard so far looms very large. I think you’re underestimating. If Trump got elected, not only would trilateral cooperation be gone but I think there’s a serious risk of him pulling troops out of South Korea. I think that’s in the fifty-fifty category if he can be talked out of it, if not. So that’s one.

One, I had a question. You just talked about domestic politics. Suppose in the April elections the opposition gets two hundred votes. I’ve heard rumblings that they want to go and impeach Yoon and that sort of thing. I’m just wondering how that would impinge on his foreign, economic, and security policies.

And then just a word on the trilateral. The Russia—what I see as kind of a loose transactional Eurasian entente forming and I would throw Iran in that basket as well, and I just see kind of a growing security dilemma behavior on both trilaterals and I wonder where—you know, the point was raised if North Korea does a seventh nuclear test, you know, how far we’ve moved from 2007 when China and Russia both went along with and China actually enforced for a while the sanctions.

If there was a seventh nuclear test, the most likely probability I see is both Russia and China would blame the United States and block any resolution. So, our ability to work the North Korea issue has really changed as this global polarization has deepened. That’s a factor and I’m just wondering if anyone had any ideas how do we—is the security dilemma problem something we can mitigate or is it—or are we—you know, if the United States improves relations with China, for example, that might be—I’m not putting the mortgage on it but I think that’s a real possibility.

LEE: Do you have two fingers—(inaudible)?

Q: I do.

LEE: Yeah.

Q: And I just wanted to add on because you were—we’re thinking along the same lines. Are there security events that are—would be so requiring a coordinated response that irrespective of whether or not the institutionalization or the trilateral exists it can actually be an underpinning and are those being prioritized and are those sufficient to actually—of a framework and an institutional focus?

I think one of them is—the test is definitely one of them. If there were to be a wider conflagration in the Middle East could be another. But there are a number of things. Are those being—so that as the Department of Defense often does—you sort of get that to lead the way around which we can gel around other issues.

LEE: OK. I couldn’t see the order, but anyhow, Glen, Kenneth, and Alex. Hanbyeol, Seong-Ho, and Evan.

Q: So I’d be curious to know a bit more about South Korea’s, especially government, assessment of the U.S. future politics. What I mean—to elaborate a bit, I visit Japan about five or six times a year and each time I go I’m impressed by just how much concern there is in Japan about the future of American politics—domestic politics, the gridlock in Washington, inability to choose the Speaker of the House, and other things.

And so my own interpretation is that the decision by Japan over the last year to significantly increase defense expenditures are partly because of North Korea, partly because of China, partly because of Ukraine, but fundamentally concern that the United States is not as reliable or as predictable as it used to be.

And I’m curious to know, I mean, there is, in my view, a hedging going on in Japan because they were so surprised by 2016 and they don’t want to be surprised again. So I’m curious to know in South Korea what kind of hedging is there going on and if, for instance as Bob Manning mentioned, if Trump were to return how would that significantly change South Korea’s foreign policy?


LEE: OK. Thank you.


Q: To get back to—on the issue of North Korea, to what extent might greater attempts at rapprochement with North Korea rather than more aggressive threats or deterrence be a reasonable effect of Camp David?



Q: Thanks. I want to—I don’t know how all of you are going to manage this panel discussion with all these questions going in such different directions.

But as someone who’s not a country expert on any of the countries, I did want to really press on perceptions about China among the three and how similar they actually are. When you drill down beyond general words like institutionalization, like cooperation, it starts to get harder to see whether concerns run in parallel or whether they actually are very similar.

I mean, it seems to me that one of the drivers of greater trilateral cooperation can be put into at least three baskets, right. One is the domestic politics. So you have a window of opportunity with the current domestic politics in each country that would allow further progress and you want to get that locked in as quickly as possible because the alternatives, whether it be Trump or someone—you know, somebody else—those opportunities may not be there.

The second is there’s similar interests, right. Whatever—free and open Indo-Pacific, and I want to just draw on Sheila not to criticize but she’s already twice made references to let’s call it democracy for now, right. What we mean by getting down beyond those words about what open—free and open actually mean to each country are a bit different.

To what extent are the perceptions of China actually similar? Are the concerns actually similar? Our South Korean friends have talked about economic deterrence and I have submissions in our journal about integrating economic deterrence into trilateral deterrence. The U.S. concern may be more Taiwan focused.

Jaechun, I want to draw you out a little bit because not only did you say don’t push too hard on Taiwan but you said don’t push too hard on China policy, and that draws on what Mike was saying is is the perception about China?

Is it about this larger entente that Bob was talking about? If it is about China, is it Taiwan? Is it the South China Sea? Is it the northern territories? Is it domestic politics? How similar are the concerns about China among the three countries? Because they seem quite different and if they are that’s going to be a problem to institutionalize.


Hanbyeol, Seong-Ho, and Evan.

Q: I think I hear from—oh, sorry. I will hear from Komei or the other U.S. colleague in this room. Yeah, the three is more powerful than two, but it is not always true, you know.

After the Camp David, is any discrepancy in operational level, which is already agreeing and in this—the ROK-U.S. summit in April—for example, a Nuclear Consultative Group or the military technology cooperation? And is there any change that can be happen—the ongoing consultation between the ROK-U.S., for example, the transfer of the wartime OPCON control. Thank you.



Q: Previously, some of you asked a question about, you know, the people-to-people exchange between Korea and Japan and the future prospect. And it is one thing that, obviously, different government, different president has a different agenda, and at this moment thanks to this three leadership we have this trilateral partnership, et cetera. But yet still one of the weakest link to remain is Korea-Japan. And especially Andrew also specifically asked about my own observation about this young generation from both Korea and Japan—how do they see it.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the most, I think, impressive and substantial area of Korea-Japan relationship over the past maybe decade. It has been moving towards—in the very positive dimension. The people-to-people exchange, as you know, I just checked data so far this year. When it comes to tourism between the two country, Korea is the number one, obviously, going into Japan today for the past six months, reaching about 2.6 million Koreans are going into Japan. That makes Korea the highest—the most country that visit Japan so far this year. And vice versa, the Japanese came to Korea they say is 660,000, which also makes the number-one tourist from Japan coming into Korea—outranking Chinese, obviously. So then counts like 20 percent of foreign tourists coming into Korea so far.

By the way, the Koreans counts 30 percent of foreign tourists going into Japan this year and, obviously, those numbers are pretty much occupied by the young generation—younger population from both sides. And not only that, the second—I see these days in YouTube lots of popular—one of the items is that the Koreans and Japanese, the married couple, they talk about the difference or similarity between these two young generation and how they see each other, how they adapt in living in Seoul or in Tokyo.

That has been a very popular, you know, video. But at the same time also I see there’s lots of young Japanese, especially the ladies, coming into Seoul, going around many different restaurants and all these cafes and places like that and they talk about how interesting and, you know, nice to be in Seoul.

So that’s just kind of one reflection of—and as far as I’m concerned when I have this exchange program with Tokyo University between SNU. And, of course, lots of our students goes to Tokyo. But at the same time, there’s increasing numbers of foreign students coming into our school and they get along so well in my class.

But the only thing is that still kind of missing link is that Korean students, still the young generation, doesn’t have such a kind of grievance about the colonialism as they see Korea-Japan as more on the equal footing—the young Koreans’ generation. But they do know what happened. They are very well aware of the history, event, and background, whereas the Japanese simply—they didn’t know much about those. So I think that’s still the area where maybe that need to be worked on from both sides. And once they learn about those history in my class, the Japanese also really very much appreciate. Oh, I didn’t know about such a thing, that I now understand why we do have that kind of—Korea—history issue between.

So that’s one thing. And, finally, the young generation’s approach—Koreans, as they are very well aware of those history issue. But their approach to those history issue is a little different from the older generation.

Whereas the older generation’s perspective is Korea becoming a victim of Japanese colonialism or imperialism. These Korean young people tend to approach this—for example, the comfort lady issues as more of woman’s rights. Rather than it’s between Korea and Japan, it’s more like woman’s rights being violated, and that is not very well recognized.

The second—the forced labor issue as well, that is being more approached from a kind of individual right to try to take this to the Korean court looking for their own justice. And our—this dialogue/discussion has been whether the government or their concern about this bilateral relations with Japan can trespass those kind of individual right.

That has been a kind of different framework rather than simply Korea-Japan—the victim and victimhood framework. So that’s just my one comment.

LEE: OK. Let me add a few things to what Seong-Ho said. Sejong hosted another meeting with Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo last week. And there was a lot of indication that particularly South Korean people, we feel like a little more disappointed about Japan’s very slow and lukewarm reaction to President Yoon’s very bold initiative.

And also Gil mentioned—asked about—how after Camp David, how much actual implementation is occurring between Korea and Japan? Mostly we all know that Camp David was a very important milestone, but on the working level we didn’t see much movement between two nations, meaning that it may take some time to actually see some significant change in working-level collaboration between Korea and Japan.

And yeah, that’s my add-on.

And Evan?

Q: Regarding institutionalization, what do you think we can expect in terms of collaboration across the three countries’ defense industrial bases? We’ve seen this Mitsubishi Electric deal with the Australian government and Korea’s defense industrial base has been growing rapidly. So what can we expect there?

And then is there anything that the governments can do to foster those connections to support the trilateral from that level?

LEE: Dr. Sheen, maybe you’re the person to answer that question, right? (Laughter.) OK. Well, we have about six minutes left so I’ll give final—a few minutes for each panelist to respond whatever they can. Each person can respond. OK.

First, Jaechun.

KIM: South Korea’s assessment of future politics of the United States—I guess South Korean government is increasingly worrying about the possibility for Mr. Trump to go back to the White House. But Yoon Suk Yeol government is on such good terms with the Biden administration so they are a little bit cautious about approaching, you know, Trump foreign policy team if there is any. I don’t know. If you have any idea please let me know.

I think every country is doing hedging. I do know Japan is doing hedging. I thought Japan placed all your eggs in American basket. So it was a quite surprise to hear that Japan is splitting differences between the United States and China.

I mean, this government is anti-China, that’s for sure. I mean, strategically Yoon Suk Yeol government made it very clear that South Korea is with the United States and Japan at strategy level but still, yeah, because we are located in this geopolitical spot where we’ll have to maintain better relations both with Americans and Chinese.

I mean, our geopolitical, you know, situation is a little bit different from Japan. You know, China is still a geopolitical reality to South Korea, China is still a geoeconomic reality to Korea. At least I think the government is thinking that we will have to salvage economic relations with China while other key allies of the United States are in good terms with China—I mean, at least in terms of economic relations.

You know, we pretty much severed our diplomatic—I mean, economic relations with China and I think the government is thinking that we’ll have to do something about it so we can have more of a wiggle room, if you will—I mean in terms of making more, like, proactive economic policy toward China so that we can have some good economic relations with, like, other key allies of the United States.

I don’t know. Opportunity—I don’t know who that was but the seventh nuclear weapons test on the part of North Koreans that will certainly, you know, bring three countries closer, that’s for sure. But I think if North Koreans test nuclear weapons for seventh time I think, you know, now that South Korea, that self-nuclearization—the public opinion for South Korea going nuclear is a little bit subsides—I mean, is in dormant stage. But if North Korea tests nuclear weapons for seventh time I think public opinion calling for self-nuclearization will resurface and that’ll—going to put a strain on ROK-U.S. alliance and on this trilateral cooperation.

So I don’t think it’ll operate as an opportunity. I jotted some—so many points but I can’t really put them in order so I better stop here. Thank you.



ISOZAKI: OK. So I will touch on several points, not all.

About the education—I agree that Japanese people including myself are not really serious student of history. I’m trying to be but we don’t know much about Japan’s modern history in the modern times.

So I’m unsure why Japanese minister of education doesn’t focus or emphasize those importance of history education. Of course, there’s divided views in Japan but we shouldn’t avoid the history issues and, of course, divided issues of it. We can teach or learn various ways to look at the history in the modern times. I agree with that.

Regarding the defense industrial bases, I attended several space and defense industries’ symposiums/conventions in Washington area and also the West Coast as well, and I felt that South Korean defense industry really eager to export. They have good exhibitors always and the big exhibitors and then very passionate people who explain the good things and then also strength of the South Korean defense and space industries.

And then some of them explained that they’re using Japanese parts and the materials produced by not big companies, but I—which I don’t remember the names, but they’re South Korean. They’re really seriously taking good parts and materials and Japanese companies produce.

So those are the areas I think Japan can learn and cooperate with South Koreans. Japan recently modified their principles on weapons-related export policies. So the government is now pushing or promoting the Japanese companies to export and find opportunity to export their materials. And now South Koreans—I think I heard after the beginning of the Ukraine war, South Korea became the fourth largest weapons exporters and Japan is much, much smaller in that sense.

And then both U.S. allies. So like AUKUS agreement between the United States, UK, and Australia, so Japan, South Korea, and maybe Australia. So those countries can cooperate in the productions or uses of materials, parts, in the defense areas. Thank you.

LEE: Thank you.


SMITH: Thank you. So much on the table. I’ve got a couple of points.

I wanted to just draw our attention back to a comment that Marybeth made earlier about a Middle Eastern conflict because I think, again, we don’t need to speculate into how that might unfold. But if it is a larger conflagration in the Middle East then, of course, some of these relationships that we’re talking about could evolve in response to that.

And I am not a Russia or a China expert but I imagine in Moscow and Beijing there may be different views on what that impact would be on their own interests and particularly resource interests.

But, again, there’s a connection with Iran and I think Bob also mentioned it. The Iran-North Korea connection is another piece that we shouldn’t ignore either.

I also—one piece that I wanted to add to that is the—watch the American public’s response to what the Biden administration is able to or not able to do in the Middle East. And I think this is not specific to the trilateral again but it will feed into—as we approach our presidential election, I think it’s going to feed into this question about the United States as global policeman, the U.S. role in getting involved in conflicts abroad, especially if it’s a broader conflagration.

So there’s many aspects of that that are worth teasing out a little bit. I’m going to spend a minute or two trying to answer Alex’s question about perceptions of China and, again, others here can certainly jump in.

But I would say, Alex, I would frame the questions both about perceptions and about the ability of each, whether it’s Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington, to respond to Chinese behavior. So it’s not just a perceptual issue in my sense of it. Couple of areas where I think—and, again, please correct me from our guests from South Korea if you think I’m wrong—all of our economies are dependent on this relationship with China. Ao that’s a first statement but it’s worth pointing out and I think Professor Kim’s admonition to us to pay attention to economic interests as we move the trilateral forward is well placed.

Private sector-state interests may not always align in all three of those countries. I’m not sure, Glen, if I agree with you on Japan hedging but I certainly see divisions between Japanese private sector interest and the government’s policy—strategic policy vis-à-vis China that I think is sometimes underappreciated here in Washington.

The military power of China and the assertion of that military power, clearly, the Japanese have a point of view. It’s very consistent with the U.S. Indo-Pacific reading of what Chinese intentions and capabilities are. I don’t think there’s a lot of dissonance. But, Mike, you can jump in if you think I’m wrong.

So that is a focal point that I’m not sure the South Korean government shares entirely, right, and for obvious reasons, right. Where I think that Seoul and Tokyo have come closer is on how they see Chinese behavior toward a broader global order or behavior. And I think, again, this creation of that Chinese-Russian access at least in the Japanese case—and I’d certainly like to hear our colleagues from South Korea comment on this—that there is a challenge afoot—a revisionist challenge, I think, is Dr. Lee’s language earlier in the conversation. And I think this is something that’s new or I’m sensing that’s new. If it’s shared by the Korean public then that would also be new.

But I do think we have to parse out responses to specific behaviors by China and then what resources can be brought to bear. I would not argue to anybody who asked me to use the trilateral as a response to Chinese power all by itself. I think what we’ve got is the reference to Taiwan is fine. I wouldn’t push it beyond that unless our militaries are doing exercises and things like that.

But at the political level I think that’s enough for now, right, until we get further down the road and it becomes much, much more critical that we think about the alliances differently.

The last point I’d say is that the addition of the DPRK to that China-Russia axis for me is so important to how we think about the trilateral, and I don’t know really how the South Korean public see that piece. We here—and, Gil, you asked the question—I didn’t hear a response yet—how that could change the trilateral agenda, whether it’s, you know, ICBM technology. I don’t know the deal. But if it’s ICBM technology, if it’s new satellite technology, if it’s submarines, right, there’s a lot that could be going on there.

That will have an immense impact, I believe, on the Seoul-Tokyo-Washington sense of what the three allies need to do together. So let me stop there.

LEE: OK. Andrew?

YEO: Sure. Just picking up from Sheila, I think if you asked me a year or even two years ago I would be a little bit more concerned about the gaps and perceptions of China. I do think South Korea has moved a little bit closer—the needle closer toward maybe Japan and the United States as it’ll probably never get to the same point in part because of the economic piece—the economic relationship—and also as what Sheila mentioned because even if they do see China as a threat because of that geographic proximity because of the North Korea puzzle they may not want to respond.

But I do think that we’re in a better place than we were a year ago. Glen, on, you know, what Korea or the Yoon government might do on hedging, I mean, I agree with Dr. Kim that President Yoon has put all his chips in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. But what he has done also is to expand or deepen relations with other countries.

This is the whole global pivotal state and reaching out to other countries, other U.S. allies in the region and elsewhere and so that might be one way of, I think, diversifying South Korea’s partnerships and interests.

And then I’ll just address Bob on the security element. That’s the thing that worries me a lot because you have these different blocs and you see right now the only thing United States, Japan, and Korea can really do is, you know, more—you know, more defense, more deterrence, more readiness.

And I don’t suggest not doing those things by any stretch of the means. But it is a security dilemma that’s building up. I do think that the Biden administration is trying hard to find pathways to reach out to China. We’ve seen this with the diplomatic engagement over the last few months. There’s going to be the APEC summit so maybe they can defuse some of those tensions. I’m a little bit skeptical. Certainly, though, without any kind of engagement you’re just going to continue to see that security dilemma.

And, lastly, it’s more of a question for you, Seong-Ho. I mean, so it’s great to hear that Koreans and even Japanese have a more—a better—their thinking is not as adversarial towards the other. But does that then take the wind out of the Democratic Party if they try to kind of mobilize anti-Japan sentiment for political purposes? If younger Koreans see that, you know, this is not really a Japan thing will they not really buy into that narrative at this point?

Let’s just say in practical terms, like, there’s a protest. Let’s all protest Uniqlo. Are the young people going to come out and protest Uniqlo shops like they did in 2017 or ’18 or are they now kind of past that point? So that’s my question in terms of politics.

If the younger generation doesn’t buy into the anti-Japanese narrative that someone like Lee Jae-myung may use does that suck the wind or does that take the wind out of what—that potential for galvanizing, you know, anti-government protests.

So I’ll stop there.

LEE: OK. Thank you. I think we have a really good start for the day and, well, I will not summarize the whole session but at least we have some consensus that trilateral cooperation will be important but also we face a lot of challenges. It seems to me the biggest challenge are maybe the domestic politics—Korea, United States, Japan. But also China factor. That will be an important point that we have to look at in the future.

So, anyway, let’s try hard to make some good policy suggestions to the three government(s) and I think that’s the responsibility of people in this room. So let me conclude the session and please join me in thanking our excellent four panelists. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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