CSDS POLICY BRIEF • 1/2024
By Tongfi Kim
- The Camp David trilateral agreements constitute a consultation pact, a type of a military alliance.
- The direct and immediate effect of consultation pacts is to foster closer military coordination and more durable cooperation among allies, but pacts of this nature can sometimes also pave the way for a stronger military commitment to each other.
- There is surprisingly strong support for an alliance between Japan and South Korea from the public in both countries, and this may be an under-appreciated cause of improved trilateral security cooperation.
On 18 August 2023, United States (US) President Joseph R. Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at Camp David. Commenting on the comprehensive nature of the agreements made at this first stand-alone US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit, Victor D. Cha remarked that ‘it amounts to a new trilateral military alliance’. In this Policy Brief, I argue that the three countries indeed seem to have formed a new trilateral military alliance although they equivocate on the nature of the commitment. This, however, does not mean that the three countries have formed a “military alliance” as popularly understood or discussed in mass media. Instead, the language of the agreements at Camp David constitutes a consultation pact, at least according to the academic literature on military alliances. Although a consultation pact entails a weaker security commitment than alliances with defensive or offensive obligations, it still has important effects on the overall security alignment of participating states.
The first section of the Policy Brief offers a brief history of US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation and explains the political context behind the Camp David agreements. I then explain why the agreements qualify as a consultation pact, based on a definition from the Alliance Treaty Obligations and Provisions (ATOP) project at Rice University. With historical examples, this section also explains why consultation pacts are important. The second section briefly describes the progress of trilateral security cooperation after the Camp David summit and discusses the future prospect of the trilateral alliance. Since the bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea are widely considered to be the weakest link of the trilateral relations, I conclude this brief by citing public opinion data from the two countries. Rather surprisingly, South Korean and Japanese publics reveal support for a military alliance between the two East Asian states, even when the respondents have a defence pact – that is, an alliance with a defence obligation – in their mind.
A brief history of US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation and the 2023 Camp David summit
Due to the US military presence in both countries and their close geographical proximity, Japan and South Korea have been important to each other’s security considerations since the Republic of Korea was founded in 1948. Japan, since 1951, and South Korea, since 1953, have been protected by the US under their respective bilateral alliances with the US, but Tokyo and Seoul have had no alliance tie themselves. The US has encouraged security cooperation between the East Asian allies, but anti-Japanese sentiments in South Korea and Japan’s anti-militarism have made security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo difficult. These quasi-allies, who share a common ally in Washington, even lacked diplomatic relations until 1965.
The history of US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation is rather short when it comes to high-level political arrangements. The first US-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit took place in the post-Cold War era. This meetingamong US President Bill Clinton, Japanese Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi and South Korean President Kim Young-sam was held during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Indonesia in November 1994. The three leaders at the time had an urgent need to coordinate their policy toward North Korea in the wake of the first North Korean nuclear crisis and the Agreed Framework signed in October 1994. The three countries established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to build nuclear reactors in North Korea in order to move the country away from developing a nuclear weapons programme. They went on to establish the Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group (TCOG) in 1999 to coordinate their policy toward North Korea. However, the framework became less relevant as the George W. Bush administration took a confrontational policy toward North Korea, while South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun took a conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang. Additionally, the Six-Party Talks replaced the TCOG as the primary forum to discuss North Korea’s denuclearisation.
The threat of North Korea continues to dominate the agenda for US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation because it is easier for the three governments to agree on the threat from Pyongyang than the one from Beijing. Whereas the US and Japan have openly sought to counter China’s rise, South Korea has been taking a more cautious approach toward Beijing. South Korea is geographically close to China, its exports heavily rely on the Chinese market and China’s role as a backer of North Korea makes Beijing an important diplomatic partner for Seoul. Thus, US-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation typically has a public focus on North Korea’s military threats, although enhanced trilateral security cooperation will be useful in deterring and dealing with contingencies involving China.
During the liberal Moon Jae-in administration (2017-2022), US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation became weak for three major reasons. First, President Moon’s primary foreign policy goal was to reduce the risk of war in the Korean Peninsula through a rapprochement between the two Koreas. For this reason, military cooperation among the US, Japan and South Korea became problematic as it is considered to be provocative toward Pyongyang. For instance, the “Pacific Dragon” ballistic missile defence exercise, which the three governments began in 2016 to improve interoperability and coordination against ballistic missiles, was not made public in 2018 and 2020 – the exercise was disclosed to the public again in 2022, after Yoon Suk-yeol became president. Second, bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo deteriorated significantly during the Moon administration due to history disputes. The disputes spilled over to the two countries’ trade and security relations too. A South Korean warship allegedly locked fire-control radar at a patrol plane of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force in December 2018, and this incident reportedly continues to hinder cooperation between the two navies. Frustrated by Japan’s export restrictions against South Korea, which were seen to be connected to historical disputes, the Moon administration in August 2019 threatened to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Third, the Moon administration reportedly placated China during the THAAD deployment dispute by taking the position that South Korea would not join a trilateral alliance with the US and Japan as part of its “Three Nos”.
Against this backdrop, the advent of the Yoon administration led to dramatic changes in the trilateral cooperation. In contrast to Moon, Yoon emphasises “peace through strength” and deterrence of North Korea. Moreover, Yoon’s open embrace of Japan is remarkable even for a conservative leader because conservative South Korean politicians are generally considered to be less critical toward Japan but still often had frictions with Tokyo. The Japanese government was initially cautious but soon appreciated the political risk Yoon was taking. Yoon and Kishida restarted the so-called “shuttle diplomacy”, where the two countries’ leaders regularly meet. The Yoon administration also distanced itself from its predecessor’s China policy, and then Foreign Minister Park Jin remarked in July 2022 that ‘[t]he Three Nos policy is not something we had promised to China’. The primary goal of the Camp David trilateral summit meeting in August 2023 was to preserve the positive momentum and protect the cooperation from future shocks; in other words, policymakers of all three states understand that a new president in Seoul or Washington could take a radically different approach to the trilateral cooperation.
The US-Japan-South Korea consultation pact and why consultation pacts matter
Like any marriage between individuals, a military alliance helps security partners to signal their intention to third parties, and it increases the cost of a breakup through the formalisation of promises. The ATOP project defines alliances as ‘written agreements, signed by official representatives of at least two independent states, that include promises to aid a partner in the event of military conflict, to remain neutral in the event of conflict […] or to consult/cooperate in the event of international crises that create a potential for military conflict’. According to Version 5.1 of the ATOP dataset, among 586 alliance agreements formed between 1815 and 2018 with clear information on the ratification status, 483 (82%) are formal treaties requiring domestic ratification. Based on this definition, the US, Japan and South Korea formed a consultation pact in August 2023, because they announced their ‘governments’ commitment to consult with each other in an expeditious manner to coordinate […] responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect [their] collective interests and security’. At the same time, one of three jointly issued documents from the summit states that ‘[t]his commitment is not intended to give rise to rights or obligations under international or domestic law’, making ambiguous the nature of the commitment to consult.
For both domestic and international reasons, all three states underplay the alliance aspect of the Camp David agreements, and many policymakers probably also believe that only defence pacts count as military alliances. On the day of the summit, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan remarked that the three countries ‘have not set an end point about formal trilateral alliance’. A South Korean official remarked that ‘alliances are not declarations, they have to be legally binding, they have to be treaties, so I don’t think that’s the case right now’. Based on media reports, there is no indication that the Japanese government sees the Camp David agreements as an alliance. It is worth noting, however, that Japanese leaders did not publicly use the term “alliance” to describe the US-Japan security treaty until Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko’s 1981 joint communique with President Ronald Reagan. As a side note, the Australia-Japan consultation pact signed in October 2022 is another low-profile military alliance, which could evolve in the coming years.
Readers may wonder if consultation pacts matter, even if they technically qualify as military alliances in the academic literature. The short answer is yes, albeit less so than agreements that include defensive or offensive obligations. The direct and immediate effect of consultation pacts are closer military coordination and more durable cooperation among allies, but consultation pacts can sometimes also pave the way for a stronger military commitment to each other. For instance, according to the ATOP dataset, the European Union was a consultation pact between 1992 and 2007 but then became a defence pact after the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 added a mutual assistance clause for the Union. Other consultation pacts that led to defence pacts include the Triple Entente before World War I and the Anti-Comintern Pact among fascist states before World War II. There are many formal military alliances that are not treated as such because the weaker security commitment of consultation pacts is confused with the lack of formality; some notable examples include consultation pacts between China and Russia (signed in 2001), Russia and North Korea (signed in 2000) and Ukraine and the United Kingdom (signed in 2024).
The future of the US-Japan-South Korea alliance
For the trilateral alliance, there is much that can be done without mutual defence between Japan and South Korea. For instance, an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between Japan and South Korea will be important for effective security cooperation involving the two countries and the US. Even without additional agreements, implementing the Camp David agreements alone will expand the scope and depth of the trilateral security cooperation to an unprecedented level. On 22 October 2023, for example, the three countries held their first trilateral aerial exercise. On 6 November 2023, South Korea’s presidential office announced that the three countries agreed to launch a high-level consultative group on countering North Korean cyber threats as part of the implementation of the Camp David agreements. The three also held their first working-level dialogue on space security on 8 November 2023. A real-time data-sharing system for North Korean missile launches began in December 2023 among the three countries.
Since President Yoon’s term continues until 2027, the most immediate and predictable major political challenge to the trilateral security cooperation is the 2024 US presidential election. Former President Donald Trump’s antipathy toward US alliances is well known. As promising as the current trajectory of the trilateral cooperation is, these initiatives can be easily sabotaged by an anti-alliance US president. Nevertheless, the recent evolution of the trilateral cooperation is in the direction that favours US national interests in the context of Sino-American geopolitical competition. Biden, Kishida and Yoon’s leadership was certainly crucial for the current success of the trilateral cooperation. It is, however, also important that the public in each of the three states now have more compatible foreign policy preferences vis-à-vis China due to the deterioration of China’s image in South Korea.
Surprisingly strong support for an alliance between Japan and South Korea
Finally, as the broader bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul are improving significantly, the two publics are showing an unprecedented support level for security cooperation between Japan and South Korea. According to the 2023 KINU Unification Survey (survey period: 15 April to 10 May 2023), 52.4% of South Korean respondents agreed with the statement that ‘South Korea and Japan should form a military alliance’ to counter the threat from North Korea, and 55.5% supported the alliance to counter the threat from China; 62.5% supported an alliance with Japan against either North Korea or China or both. Among respondents affiliated with the conservative People Power Party supporters, who are Yoon Suk-yeol’s support base, 76.2% supported forming a military alliance with Japan against North Korea or China. Moreover, even among the supporters of the Democratic Party of Korea, who tend to be more critical toward Japan, 52.5% supported an alliance with Japan against North Korea or China. Significantly, South Korean respondents are most familiar with their country’s mutual defence treaty with the US and probably understood “military alliance” to mean a defence pact.
The KINU survey results above are already surprising because of the well-known historical animosity between South Korea and Japan, but a recent survey of the Japanese public that I conducted with Jordan Becker, Matthew DiGiuseppe and Haemin Jee (survey period: 29 September to 9 October 2023) shows a similarly unexpected result. In our survey, we explicitly asked if Japanese respondents agree with the following statement: “Japan and South Korea should sign a treaty in which they agree to come to each other’s defence in the event either one is attacked”. In fact, even under the 1960 US-Japan security treaty, Japan does not have an obligation to defend the US, and the Japanese government only in 2014 changed its interpretation of the constitution to allow for the right – but not obligation – of collective self-defence. Among the control group, which did not receive treatment in our survey experiment, only 27.9% disagreed with the mutual defence treaty, 43.2% were not sure and 29% supported it. Although bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul had improved dramatically by fall 2023, it is astonishing that more Japanese support a defence pact with South Korea than those who oppose it.
Thus, although pundits are correct to worry about the durability of the achievements made by Biden, Kishida and Yoon, there are strategic and domestic political conditions that favour the continuation of the trilateral security cooperation. Regarding domestic political conditions, the Japanese public’s favourable image of South Korea was at a record-high(37.4%) in September 2023, but the favourability of Japan in South Korea has not benefitted from the improved bilateral relations (a slight decrease from 30.6% in 2022 to 28.9% in 2023) according to surveys conducted by Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute. Yoon’s policy to improve the bilateral relations seems to be appreciated by both the leaders and the public of Japan, but it has left the South Korean public dissatisfied.