Threats in Western Pacific Drawing South Korea, Japan Closer Together, Experts Say

August 30, 2023 12:42 PM
Sailors aboard a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense ship in formation with USS Benfold on Aug. 28, 2023, JMSDF Photo

Joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises near Japan and recent North Korea firing missiles underscore the importance of the historic agreement recently reached at Camp David between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the White House’s former top official for the Indo-Pacific said Tuesday.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell pointed out that as the presidents of the United States and Korea were meeting with the prime minister of Japan in an “unprecedented” trilateral summit, China and Russia were conducting naval exercises designed to send a clear signal to Tokyo that Beijing’s and Moscow’s interests in Northeast Asia are closely aligned.

“The security environment is concerning to all three,” he said.

Joining Campbell at the Center for Strategic and International Studies event, Japanese ambassador Tomita Koji said the three nations are working to create connections to handle changing threats.

The United States has separate security treaties with Japan and Korea.

The three nations agreed to share missile launch data, Tomita added. A little more than a year ago, Tokyo and Seoul were again in a diplomatic and trade dispute, threatening the intelligence sharing among the three allies.

Earlier this year, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told a Korean-American relations group that sharing this intelligence is “no longer a luxury but a necessity” and the two nations, with separate alliances with the United States, needed “to get beyond poking each other in the eye.”

“The trilateral meeting was possible because of the bilateral relations” between Japan and Korea, Tomita said. “Now we can talk about what we can do together” in areas like overseas development assistance, technology development and security. Campbell called the March meeting in Tokyo between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol “courageous” in overcoming years of hostility between the two nations.

In addition to Pyongyang’s missile firings, Campbell cited growing cyber threats and China’s provocations in the South China Sea and along its border with India as security challenges the leaders discussed. He said they agreed “a challenge to any one of these countries [United States, Japan and Korea] is a challenge to the other.”

The agreement reached at Camp David is not a mutual defense treaty, like NATO, and will not go to the Senate for approval. The ambassadors and Campbell cited caveats the three nations accepted.

Cho Hyundong, Korea’s ambassador to the United States, said at the CSIS event that “the three leaders re-affirmed the goal of the denuclearization” of the peninsula and a desire to resume talks with Pyongyang without pre-conditions.

Instead of talks, “we’re witnessing new provocations” with repeated missile tests, he added.

Campbell said that since the 2019 talks between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended abruptly in Hanoi, “we’ve had no real dialogue with North Korea through any mechanism.” He added that North Korean’s goal now is not to signal terms for new negotiations, but “about modernizing their arsenal.”

On the reception of the Camp David summit and agreement, the two ambassadors said support for better relations between Seoul and Tokyo, as well as the trilateral arrangement with Washington, have broad support domestically.

Campbell summarized the meeting with President Joe Biden at Camp David as “three equal, powerful nations meeting on equal terms.” Washington was “no longer the older brother” in the talks, he added. The agreement creates a mechanism for annual trilateral summits and also for the three defense and security leaders and foreign ministers to meet regularly.

“The three countries are the engines of the global economy,” Cho said. They account for 31 percent of global domestic production and are leaders in high-technology manufacturing and research. Combined, “they are a force for good,” he added.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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