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Biden strengthens ties with Japan and South Korea at Camp David summit

Biden hosts Japan, South Korea leaders
With China threat looming, Biden hosts Japan, South Korea leaders in trilateral summit 02:21

Washington — President Biden announced Friday a trilateral agreement with the leaders of Japan and South Korea to deepen their security and economic commitments following a historic summit at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Mr. Biden held the summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to focus on regional security cooperation concerns, especially managing North Korean belligerence and countering China.

"We meet in this historic place to make a historic moment, and I believe that to be true," the president said. "This is new era and partnership between Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States, our new 'Camp David Trilat.'"

As part of the renewed ties, detailed in a joint statement titled "The Spirit of Camp David," the three nations committed to new coordination efforts, including a hotline when there is a crisis in the region. The leaders announced a "commitment to consult" the others "in an expeditious manner to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect our collective interests and security," according to the joint statement from the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

The three leaders agreed to strengthen information sharing about North Korean missile launches and cyber activities, bolster missile-defense cooperation to counter nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang, and reaffirmed the commitment to "peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits," the president said.

On the economic front, the U.S., Japan and South Korea will work to launch early-warning system pilots to expand information-sharing and boost coordination on possible supply-chain disruptions.

"We will bolster the rules-based international order and play key roles to enhance regional security and prosperity based on our shared values on freedom, human rights and rule of law," Yoon told reporters.

Mr. Biden said as part of the renewed ties, the leaders will meet in-person annually, while Cabinet-level officials will gather on a regular basis in perpetuity. 

"Our world stands at an inflection point, a point where we're called to lead in new ways, to work together, to stand together, and today, I'm proud to say our nations are answering that call," the president said.

Before detailing the details of the deal, Mr. Biden thanked Yoon and Kishida for contributing to the wildlife relief efforts in Maui. Kishida announced earlier in the day that Japan would provide roughly $2 million in support.

"I offer my heartfelt prayer for the earliest possible recovery of the impacted areas," he said.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, who briefed reporters at Camp David on Friday morning, said the summit marked a "new era" of cooperation among the three to "stitch together our systems" across a range of interests for years to come. 

However, Sullivan made clear that this cooperation agreement is not NATO for the Pacific. While the agreement commits each country to military cooperation and shared defense exercises, there is no Article 5 equivalent that would consider a military attack on one member an attack on all members.

President Biden Hosts Japan And South Korea's Leaders At Camp David
Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea's president, from left, US President Joe Biden and Fumio Kishida, Japan's prime minister, at a news conference during a trilateral summit at Camp David, Maryland, US, on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.  Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sullivan told reporters the U.S. is concerned about North Korea's military cooperation with Russia but stopped short of accusing Russia of violating U.N. sanctions against the North.

"This is a big deal," Sullivan said. "It is a historic event and it sets the conditions for a more peaceful and prosperous Indo Pacific and a stronger and more secure United States of America."

This was the first time Mr. Biden has ever invited any foreign leader to Camp David. He met one-on-one with each leader and, during the joint press conference late Friday, highlighted the location chosen to broker the trilateral deal.

"I can think of no more fitting location to begin the next era of cooperation, a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities," Mr. Biden said of Camp David.

The aim of the summit was to further tighten security and economic ties between Japan and South Korea, two nations that have had historically chilly relations.

But tensions between South Korea and Japan have thawed quickly over the last year, since the two nations are both concerned about China's assertiveness in the Pacific and North Korea's persistent nuclear threats. Mr. Biden hoped to use the summit in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains to urge Yoon and Kishida to turn the page on their countries' troubled shared history.

The president praised his fellow two leaders for their "political courage" to resolve issues that have long endured, and said the summit underscored his commitment to bringing the three countries together.

"America's commitment to both countries is ironclad," he said. Later, in response to a reporter's question about his predecessor's foreign policy, Mr. Biden said the so-called America First approach from former President Donald Trump made the U.S. "weaker, not stronger."

The Japan-South Korea relationship has been difficult because of differing views of World War II history and Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. Past efforts to tighten security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo have progressed in fits and starts.

But the White House hopes the current rapprochement offers an opportunity for a historic shift in the relationship.

"What we have seen over the course of last couple of months is a breathtaking kind of diplomacy that has been led by courageous leaders in both Japan and South Korea," Kurt Campbell, Mr. Biden's top Indo-Pacific adviser, said at an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Wednesday. "They have sometimes, against the advice of their own counselors and staff, taken steps that elevate the Japan- South Korean relationship into a new plane."

In choosing Camp David to hold the summit, Mr. Biden sought to put on display the importance of U.S. relations with the two countries. The presidential retreat has over the last 80 years hosted historic peace summits and intimate leader-to-leader talks.

The Biden administration says it remains determined to place greater foreign policy focus on the Pacific even as the U.S. grapples with the fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year, Mr. Biden honored Yoon with a state visit and picked Kishida's predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, for the first face-to-face visit of his presidency.

The retreat was where President Jimmy Carter brought together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978 for talks that established a framework for a historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in March 1979. In the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the retreat — then known as Shangri-La — to plan the Italian campaign that would knock Benito Mussolini out of the war.

But despite Camp David's history of hosting foreign leaders, Mr. Biden could not escape questions about domestic issues, namely son Hunter Biden's legal troubles. The president was asked for his response to last week's appointment of top Delaware prosecutor David Weiss to special counsel, a move that gives him expanded powers to continue an investigation into Hunter Biden. 

Mr. Biden said he had "no comment in any investigation" that's ongoing.

"That's up to the Justice Department, and that's all I have to say," he said.

The relationship mending between South Korea and Japan has come with a significant measure of political risk for Yoon because bitterness in Korea over Japan's colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 remains. Polls show a majority of South Koreans oppose Yoon's handling of the forced labor issue with Japan.

Kishida and Yoon came to office months apart in late 2021 and early 2022 as their countries' relationship was in one of the roughest periods since the two countries officially normalized relations in 1965.

Japan suspended South Korea's preferred trade status in 2019 in apparent retaliation for South Korean court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean workers for abusive treatment and forced labor during World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese occupation.

Japan also tightened export controls on key chemicals used by South Korean companies to make semiconductors, prompting South Korea to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization and remove Japan from its own list of countries with preferred trade status.

But relations between the two nations have improved significantly in recent months. Yoon proposed an initiative in March to resolve disputes stemming from compensation for wartime Korean forced laborers. He announced that South Korea would use its own funds to compensate Koreans enslaved by Japanese companies before the end of World War II.

Yoon also traveled to Tokyo in March for talks with Kishida, the first such visit in more than 12 years. Kishida reciprocated with a visit to Seoul in May and expressed sympathy for the suffering of Korean forced laborers during Japan's colonial rule.

"The world is changing rapidly, and I think this is apparent to both the Japanese and South Koreans," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yoon in remarks this week to mark the 78th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's colonial rule, made it clear that improving ties with Japan is crucial to regional stability.

"As partners that cooperate on security and the economy, South Korea and Japan will be able to jointly contribute to peace and prosperity across the globe while collaborating and exchanging in a future-oriented manner," Yoon said.

Arden Farhi, Bo Erickson and Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.

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