South Korea’s president called for deeper security cooperation with the United States and Japan to address North Korea’s nuclear threat, saying Tuesday that his upcoming summit with the U.S. and Japanese leaders at Camp David will “set a new milestone in trilateral cooperation.”
It will be the first time for the leaders of the three countries to gather specifically for a trilateral summit, rather than on the sidelines of international meetings. This suggests they are serious about boosting their ties in the midst of complex regional challenges such as North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal and Washington’s strategic rivalry with Beijing.
In their summit Friday at the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland, President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio are expected to announce plans for expanded military cooperation on ballistic missile defense and technology development, according to two senior Biden administration officials.
The summit “will set a new milestone in trilateral cooperation contributing to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region,” Yoon said in a televised speech in Seoul on Tuesday.
The speech marked the 78th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s 35-year colonial rule in 1945. Past South Korean presidents commonly used Liberation Day speeches to ask Japan to make fresh apologies for its colonial actions. But Yoon, a conservative who has pushed to resolve historical grievances as a way to boost Seoul-Washington-Tokyo cooperation, instead explained why improved ties with Japan were needed.
Yoon said the seven rear bases provided to the U.S.-led U.N. Command by Japan serve as “the greatest deterrent” that keeps North Korea from invading South Korea. He said a North Korean invasion would trigger an immediate, automatic intervention by the U.N. Command and that the bases in Japan have the necessary land, sea, and air capabilities.
“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.
He said the importance of Seoul-Washington-Tokyo security cooperation is growing on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.
“In order to fundamentally block North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan must closely cooperate on reconnaissance assets and share North Korean nuclear weapon and missile data in real time,” Yoon said.
When they met at the margins of a regional conference in Cambodia in November, Yoon, Biden, and Kishida said they intended to share North Korea missile warning data to improve each country’s ability to detect and assess the threat posed by incoming missiles. In June, their defense ministers said they recognized efforts to activate such a data-sharing mechanism before the end of the year.
The Camp David summit is expected to anger North Korea, which has argued that U.S. moves to bolster military cooperation with South Korea and Japan are pushing it to reinforce its own military capability. North Korea views U.S.-led military drills on and near the Korean Peninsula as an invasion rehearsal.
China, which is intensely sensitive to what it perceives as other countries ganging up on it, denounced the summit.
“China opposes relevant countries forming various cliques and their practices of exacerbating confrontation and jeopardizing other countries’ strategic security,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a briefing Tuesday. “We hope the countries concerned will go with the trend of the times and do something conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
South Korea has maintained that its push to strengthen its alliance with the United States and participate in U.S.-led regional initiatives won’t target China, its biggest trading partner.
Worries about North Korea’s nuclear program have grown since the North openly threatened to use nuclear weapons in conflicts with its rivals and conducted about 100 missile tests since the start of last year. Many of the missiles were nuclear-capable weapons that place both South Korea and Japan within striking distance and could potentially reach the U.S. mainland. South Korea and Japan together host about 80,000 U.S. troops.
In response to North Korea’s missile tests, the United States and South Korea have expanded their military drills and resumed some trilateral training involving Japan.
South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have held a trilateral leaders’ meeting a total of 12 times since 1994, but all were on the sidelines of international conferences, according to South Korea’s presidential office.
This week’s trilateral summit comes as ties between Seoul and Tokyo have eased significantly in recent months. In March, Yoon took a major step toward resolving bilateral wrangling over colonial-era Korean forced laborers, despite vehement opposition at home by some victims and his liberal rivals. Yoon has argued that Seoul and Tokyo share challenges such as the intensifying China-U.S. competition and global supply chain problems as well as North Korea’s nuclear program.