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Can Camp David Pave the Way for Durable Japan-Korea Ties?

Shihoko Goto
President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon standing together outside looking off camera.
President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and President Yoon Suk Yeol pose for a photo together during the 2023 G7 Summit in Japan.

When the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea gather at Camp David on August 18, they will already have met their primary objective, namely to engage in a constructive trilateral dialogue. The fact that this will be the first time the three heads of state will gather specifically for a trilateral meeting, rather than on the sidelines of an international conference, is the most significant development yet in the thawing of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. It will also test the role of the United States as a bridge-builder that leads to improved relations that endure.

The road to Camp David has hardly been an easy one, as relations between Japan and Korea deteriorated rapidly since 2019. A change in leadership in both countries has helped to reset ties, with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to Tokyo in March, coupled with efforts to resolve the 2018 Korean court ruling to take punitive action against the use of forced Korean labor during World War II by Japanese companies, leading the way to a bilateral rapprochement. The trilateral to be held at the U.S. presidential retreat is expected to enhance relations between President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida still further, and also allows Washington’s two principal partners in the Indo-Pacific to focus on cross-border issues including North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the threat posed by China, and regional security more broadly.

Looking ahead, the success of the trilateral summit will ultimately lie in the durability of the partnership between two of the most powerful democracies in Asia. While both Washington and Tokyo have publicly welcomed the overtures initiated by President Yoon, the Korean leader continues to face considerable political opposition to his vision to strengthen ties with Japan. In addition to continued tensions over the politicization of historical memory, Japan’s plans to release treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power station have become a new source of friction between the two sides, even as the IAEA and the international scientific community more broadly have reassured the public that the release of the water will have a negligible impact on people and the environment. Meanwhile, sovereignty of the islets of Takeshima according to Japan, or Dokdo remains a source of political tension between the two countries.

Personalities matter in diplomacy, and a demonstrated rapport between President Yoon, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Biden is a prerequisite for the summit’s success.

For Japan, one of the biggest concerns is the staying power of any commitments made by the Yoon administration. While President Yoon’s commitment to enhance relations with Japan have been broadly appreciated by the Kishida government, there is still wariness about the tenacity of the progress made by the current Korean administration, and whether any new agreements would be supported by Yoon’s successor from 2027 onwards. As such, any lasting impact of the Camp David summit must be to ensure that commitments made between Japan and Korea will not be endangered by domestic political developments in the future.

Personalities matter in diplomacy, and a demonstrated rapport between President Yoon, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Biden is a prerequisite for the summit’s success. But the real test of the Camp David meeting will be whether the three leaders will be able to ensure that bridging divides and building relations can be institutionalized so that diplomatic relations can withstand political change.

Follow Shihoko Goto, acting director of the Asia Program, on Twitter @GotoEastAsia.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto

Director, Asia Program and Director for Geoeconomics and Indo-Pacific Enterprise

Shihoko Goto is the director the Asia Program and director for geoeconomics and Indo-Pacific enterprise at the Wilson Center. Her research focuses on the economics and politics of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as US policy in Northeast Asia. A seasoned journalist and analyst, she has reported from Tokyo and Washington for Dow Jones and UPI on the global economy, international trade, and Asian markets. A columnist for The Diplomat magazine and contributing editor to The Globalist, she was previously a donor country relations officer for the World Bank and has been awarded fellowships from the East-West Center and the Knight Foundation, among others.

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