The US, Japan and South Korea break bread

US President Joe Biden will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to the storied Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains today (Friday).

Relations between the two US allies have been fraught for over a century, with Japan occupying Korea from 1910 to 1945. And their recent disputes have thwarted US efforts to foster unity in an increasingly volatile region.

But Yoon and Kishida, who took office months apart, have shown a willingness to try again. And that’s where Camp David comes in: using its gravitas to put a floor under Japan-Korea ties and try to rebuild from there.

So today, the three leaders will announce initiatives to deepen their defence, tech and economic cooperation (plus probably make the summit an annual affair).

But it all feels more like a new beginning than a culmination.

Intrigue’s take: We focus on geopolitics more than politics, but this is one of those reminders of how much each shapes the other.

Japanese and Korean leaders often pay a political price at home for reaching out too far abroad. But evidently, Yoon and Kishida feel they now have enough political cover to keep going. This cover comes partly:

  • 🇯🇵🇰🇷 From each other, through reciprocal visits this year
  • 🇺🇸 From the US, through state visits and today’s Camp David summit, but also (and unwittingly)
  • 🇨🇳🇷🇺🇰🇵 From China, Russia and North Korea, which have each now spooked Korean and Japanese voters alike.

Of course, future elections could unwind whatever’s announced today. But the gravitas of a Camp David summit imposes a political cost on doing so.

Diplomacy is at its most effective when it finds a way to align the politics and the geopolitics. And that’s what’s being attempted at Camp David today.

Also worth noting:

  • South Korean intel suggests North Korea will register its opposition to today’s summit via a missile test in coming days. For its part, China said it opposes “countries forming various cliques”.
  • Former US President Obama brokered a meeting between then Japanese PM Abe and Korean President Park in Washington in 2016.
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