Not a bad legacy for a book whose drafting, to put it diplomatically, was a group effort — a fact which itself serves as a reminder that myth-making and leadership tend to go hand in hand in the making of great statesmen.
As the John F Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation prepares to award South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with an International Profile in Courage Award, it’s worthwhile to consider whether the long-term payoffs of the two men’s efforts to break through political barriers between their countries will live up to the euphoric tone of some of the commentary that followed the landmark Camp David summit with US President Joe Biden in August.
As the Library Foundation says, the two leaders deserve recognition for ‘courageously work[ing] to address sensitive historical issues that have prevented close cooperation’ between their two countries. Their work culminated in a series of bilateral meetings and a summit with Biden at Camp David that ‘affirmed the progress made between two of America’s closest allies and set the stage for increasing trilateral cooperation with the United States’.
The problems that lie behind the euphemism of ‘historical issues’ aren’t trivial. They go to many South Koreans’ deep sense of injustice over the unaddressed legacies of Japan’s colonial and wartime conduct — including war crimes, forced labour and sexual slavery. In Japan, that legacy is contested, to say the least, and the minimisation of the scale of Japan’s past wrongdoings, or at least the downplaying of contemporary Japanese society’s culpability for them, is a first-order cause among conservatives.
It’s a mark of how deep the security concerns about China run in both countries that these history wars can be set aside for closer bilateral ties as well as stronger defence relationships with their common ally, the United States.
Despite that shared sense of the urgency of addressing the China challenge, the political risks in this are far from evenly distributed. As Lee Seong-hyon explains in this week’s lead article, the idiosyncratic politics of South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol have unlocked the possibility for Tokyo and Seoul to put the history wars to one side — while also exposing Yoon as the political weak link in the new trilateral.
Yoon, a former prosecutor with little experience in party politics, ‘has bucked the trend of popular sentiment in his pursuit of trilateral synergy’, an approach ‘which has been long desired by Washington’ but which has been frustrated by the fraught domestic politics of South Korea’s relationships with Japan and the United States.
The August summit at Camp David produced a joint statement that, while ‘stopp[ing] shy of solidifying a formal military alliance’, nevertheless ‘resonated with the spirit embodied in NATO’s Article 5’ by enshrining a commitment for the parties to ‘consult’ in a crisis.
If institutionalised over the long term, the three sides will be better equipped to detect and respond to military and non-conventional security threats and meet annually at top levels of government to further refine their trilateral arrangements. This should allow the United States, South Korea and Japan more transparency about North Korean missile tests, Chinese cyber espionage and their own militaries’ interoperability — not just in Northeast Asia but further afield.
To be sure, many of the Camp David mechanisms and schemes exist in some form at a bilateral level. The hope is that pooling the resources of the United States, South Korea and Japan will improve the security environment for all three while elevating a trilateral framework that does not require Washington’s direct involvement at every step of the way.
Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that the reinvigorated trilateral relationship is hostage to the relationships between domestic political institutions and foreign policy outcomes.
The pathways to power that the South Korean system incentivises, combined with its so-called ‘imperial presidency’, give presidents wide leeway to reorient policy at their whim — unlike Japan’s LDP-dominated parliamentary system, where prime ministers have to climb the greasy pole of party politics and have to work comparatively hard to build party and bureaucratic consensus around major policy shifts.
By the same token, South Korean presidents are vulnerable to seeing their policy agendas disavowed by a successor once their constitutionally-limited single five-year term is up. As Lee warns, ‘[w]hether [Yoon’s] policies endure after his tenure is questionable, especially if a successor from the traditionally more anti-Japanese progressive side of politics emerges victorious’ in the next presidential election in 2027.
In the United States, Donald Trump is favoured to win the Republican Party’s presidential primary in 2024, and with Joe Biden registering the lowest approval ratings of any president seeking re-election since Jimmy Carter, the ‘Spirit of Camp David’ may be fleeting.
For proponents of tighter strategic relations between this Northeast Asian triad, the fraught politics of national security in South Korea might be the least of their worries, given the damage ‘America First’ Trumpism would do to the global credibility that ultimately underpins any efforts to multilateralise the ‘hub and spoke’ US alliance structure.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.