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The Camp David summit signals a new chapter for U.S. alliances in Asia

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we now turn to the regional view of what the Camp David summit looks like. Leaders of the U.S., South Korea and Japan ended an unprecedented three-way meeting yesterday there. The U.S. and its allies describe their partnership as a new force in the region. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nice to join you, Scott.

SIMON: And what does reaction been there to the summit?

KUHN: The main reaction in Asia seems to be that the summit is unprecedented, but it's also largely symbolic. And the symbolism the three countries want to convey is that they are united, and countries such as North Korea, China and Russia will not be able to exploit the differences between them. Now, one of the outcomes is what the U.S. is calling a commitment to consult among the three nations about potential threats. So in the event of, for example, a North Korean nuclear test or a disruption to supply chains, the three will consult and coordinate their responses. There will also be an annual three-way leadership summits and military drills. I think everyone is clear that this is not a three-way alliance under discussion. It's still two bilateral alliances between the U.S. and Japan and between the U.S. and Korea, and that's because there is still not enough trust between Japan and Korea to support a bilateral alliance with each other or a three-way alliance with the US.

SIMON: With that lack of trust, how did the summit come about?

KUHN: Well, the mistrust is left over from Japan's colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. During World War II, for example, Japan's military forced Korean and other women into sexual slavery. Thousands of Koreans were conscripted as forced laborers. And South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol essentially said that if Japan is not going to compensate these forced laborers, then South Korea will. Japan insisted, laid the matter to rest when the two countries normalized relations in the 1960s. But this remains a major sticking point between the two. And most South Koreans want Japan, not South Korea, to compensate Koreans. Despite this, the two countries held their first summit meetings in 12 years in March, and Washington, which had been nudging them to do it, is delighted.

SIMON: Deals reached at Camp David are supposed to survive any subsequent changes in political administrations and public opinion that occur in democracies. Can they really do that?

KUHN: Anything could happen. But the Biden administration is trying to lock in the progress that's been made by institutionalizing it. And here's how national security adviser Jake Sullivan put it to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: Every leader's going to have to make decisions. But the architecture, the framework, the structure that's being put in place now, from our perspective, has a tailwind behind it that will propel it forward and be very difficult to knock off course.

KUHN: Now, of course, there is concern in Japan and South Korea about another Trump administration, or someone like him, who has questioned the value of alliances. And it's also rare that you get this alignment of leaders in Japan and South Korea that are so friendly to each other.

SIMON: Anthony, how might this agreement affect ties among North Korea, China and Russia?

KUHN: Yes. Well, the Camp David summit documents call out Russia over its war on Ukraine, North Korea for its nuclear weapons and China for its activities around Taiwan in the South China Sea. Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow are, of course, not happy about the summit. They're tightening their cooperation. The U.S. claims that North Korea's already supplying Russia with arms for use in Ukraine. Russia and China, meanwhile, occasionally stage joint military drills around South Korea and Japan probing the allies defenses, so the summit could strengthen these rival blocs.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thanks so much for being with us.

KUHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.