South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was scheduled to depart Thursday to attend a trilateral summit with the US and Japan at Camp David.
The summit on Friday is expected to be a major turning point in the three sides’ closeness on military and economic security issues. But for many, the mood is one of concern rather than hopefulness.
After the summit, the three leaders are expected to announce the so-called “Camp David principles,” representing an unprecedented upgrade in trilateral cooperation that includes regular trilateral summits, national security advisor meetings, and annual joint military exercises.
The annual joint military exercises are expected to also include radar, satellite, and missile interception drills by the three sides. The aim is to institutionalize trilateral military cooperation to such an extent that security cooperation can continue even if different administrations come to office or changes arise in South Korea-Japan relations.
This shares connections with the efforts by US President Joe Biden to play up the stronger containment of China through trilateral coordination as an achievement in the areas of foreign policy and national security. While Yoon has been stressing the importance of trilateral cooperation as a response to North Korea, there is also a growing risk that South Korea will find itself on the front lines of US efforts to hem China in.
Another key issue is the transformation of South Korea-Japan relations into a “quasi-alliance.”
In his National Liberation Day address on Tuesday, Yoon referred to South Korea and Japan as “partners that cooperate on security and the economy.”
“The seven rear bases provided to the United Nations Command (UNC) by the government of Japan serve as the greatest deterrent which keeps the North from invading the South,” he added, placing unusual emphasis on Japan’s role in a potential emergency on the Korean Peninsula.
In an interview with Bloomberg published on Wednesday, Yoon mentioned the possibility of Japan eventually participating in the South Korea-US Nuclear Consultative Group.
“Regarding extended deterrence, we are also open to separate consultations among the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan,” he said.
Things that would have been unimaginable in the past are being mentioned by the Yoon administration as if they were nothing unusual. A major driving force in these discussions of military cooperation between South Korea and Japan can be found in the concessions that Yoon has freely made to Tokyo.
While Yoon was emphasizing Japan’s role in providing rear bases to the UNC on National Liberation Day, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spent the same day leaving an offering at Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals from the Pacific War are enshrined.
There is also the serious risk of this actually destabilizing South Korea-Japan relations in the long term. Even if Seoul steps up its cooperation with Washington and Tokyo to respond to the North Korean nuclear crisis, we cannot cope with too much tension and confrontation with Beijing.
Hopefully, Yoon will give this reality a great deal of thought as he makes his way to Camp David