President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol are speaking to reporters at a news conference after their summit at the Camp David presidential retreat Friday afternoon.
Mr. Biden is holding the summit to focus on regional security cooperation concerns, especially managing North Korean belligerence and countering China.
Mr. Biden, Kishida and Yoon are expected to announce new coordination efforts, including a hotline and a commitment to consult one another and “share information to align our messaging and to take policy actions in tandem,” a senior administration official said, noting that the three countries are also committing to annual trilateral meetings.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan, who briefed reporters at Camp David Friday morning, said the summit marks 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.
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 is the first time Mr. Biden has ever invited any foreign leader to Camp David. He met one-on-one with each leader and the three are holding a joint press conference late Friday afternoon.
The aim of the summit is 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 hopes 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 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.”
Biden administration officials say the leaders will announce in their summit communique a series of joint efforts that aim to institutionalize cooperation among the three countries as they face an increasingly complicated Pacific.
In choosing Camp David to hold the summit, Mr. Biden is trying 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.
Kishida before departing Tokyo for Washington on Thursday called the summit a “historic occasion to bolster trilateral strategic cooperation based on our stronger-than-ever bilateral relations with the United States and South Korea.”
The relationship mending 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.
Mr. Biden is expected to impress on Yoon and Kishida that the U.S., Japan and South Korea have arrived at a critical moment.
“I think it’s fair to say that a few months ago both President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida might have been a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of a meeting at Camp David,” said Christopher Johnstone, a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Both would have been hesitant to endorse any implication that somehow the U.S. was brokering an improvement in Japan-ROK ties,” he said, referring to the Republic of Korea. “But we’re in a very different stage now.”
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 and Bo Erickson contributed to this report.