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Andrew Harnik/AP/AAP

Camp David summit turns attention to North Korea, as well as China

While China’s relationship with the region and the world is a constant focus of attention and scrutiny, world leaders have also been closely watching North Korea, particularly for its steadily increasing ballistic missile capability.

It was the primary focus of last week’s trilateral summit held at Camp David between US President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

This was the first time Biden hosted foreign leaders at the historic presidential retreat. It was a major diplomatic step in the Biden administration’s strategic policy to ramp up deterrence against China and also Russia.

A joint statement released at the summit’s conclusion condemned China’s recent military actions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. It also opposed any changes to the territorial status quo of the Indo-Pacific through the threat or use of force.

Russia’s war against Ukraine was also condemned. The leaders pledged continued support for Ukraine in its resistance to the Russian invasion.

North Korea has increased the rate of its missile testing to record levels, with over 80 launches since the beginning of 2022. The most concerning of these tests were of its solid-fuel road-transportable Hwasong-18 ICBMs in April and July 2023. These can be quickly prepared for launch at short notice and have the range to strike the entire United States (and Australia).

Read more: Solidarity and symbolism the order of the day as US, Japan and South Korea leaders meet at Camp David

Eyes on North Korea

In its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the armistice marking the end of the Korean War last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hosted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as part of a visiting delegation of senior Russian and Chinese officials.

North Korea has also been accused of supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine, which the DPRK denies. The Camp David summit therefore showed the determination of the Biden administration to reinforce alliances with its democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific.

This in turn is designed to deter the deepening level of co-operation between autocratic China, Russia and North Korea. China responded angrily to the summit, accusing the US of bringing “bloc confrontation” to the region.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hosted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Pyongyang last month. KCNA/EPA/AAP

Estimated to have the eighth-most-powerful military capabilities in the region, North Korea’s increasing belligerence has been noted at the United Nations. The UN Security Council was briefed last week that the “increasing militarisation” of North Korea is causing the human rights situation in the country, already one of the most oppressive in the world, to deteriorate even further.

North Korea has been under UN Security Council sanctions since 2006 for its unlawful nuclear weapons program and severe human rights abuses. Any opposition to Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime is brutally suppressed. The Australian Defence Forces are involved in enforcing these sanctions through Operation Argos, patrolling out of bases in Japan.

Read more: North Korea: fears of a new famine after three years of COVID isolation and harsh repression

Even before the Camp David summit, the armed forces of the US, Japan and South Korea had been engaged in trilateral co-operation and military drills in response to North Korean missile launches.

To counter this mutual threat, the Camp David summit outlined a range of plans for the US to transform its existing bilateral military alliances with Japan and South Korea into trilateral security co-operation. Specific measures include intelligence sharing for an early warning system, a “hotline” between the three leaders, and co-ordination of anti-ballistic missile capabilities.

While no formal agreement was made, the principles espoused at Camp David to counter North Korea will aim to be institutionalised through annual trilateral leaders’ summits. Larger-scale military exercises will be conducted annually. And the broader area of economic security, an early warning system to identify threats to supply chains of resources like batteries and critical minerals, will also be established.

Relations between Japan and South Korea thaw

All this was made possible by the recent thawing of the diplomatic deep freeze between Japan and South Korea. This was largely driven by the grievances of the administration of former Democratic Party President Moon Jae-in.

The dramatic improvement in relations between Japan and South Korea were enabled by Moon’s successor, the conservative-aligned Yoon. His willingness to brave domestic political opposition and move on from the historical legacy of Japan’s imperial colonisation of Korea, particularly compensation for wartime sex slaves and forced labour, was eagerly reciprocated by his Japanese conservative counterpart Kishida.

Yoon’s visit to Tokyo last March and his state visit to the US in April, plus Kishida’s visit to Seoul in May, paved the way for the Camp David summit.

Ever since Japan and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1965, the US has often been frustrated with the prickly relations between its two key allies in North-East Asia. It has frequently encouraged reconciliation that would allow greater trilateral military co-operation.

Read more: What South Korean president Park’s political demise means for the region's geopolitics

The Biden administration appears to have finally achieved this long-desired strategic objective. However, in the news conference closing the summit, Biden expressed his intention to strengthen the US alliances of the region, despite the isolationist policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump. This allusion reminds of the instability Trump threatens to bring again to US foreign policy.

Yoon also faces the prospect of his People Power Party losing control of the South Korean parliament in elections next year. Defeat could result in his impeachment.

Kishida could also be ousted if he loses the leadership ballot for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party due in September next year.

Domestic political ructions in any of the three partner countries could yet undermine the outcomes of the Camp David summit.

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