Biden’s Big Bet on Japan and South Korea
Can rising enemies bring old frenemies together?
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack here. How do we know U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is not like the rest of us? America’s top diplomat confessed to reporters at the State Department lectern on Tuesday that he hasn’t yet seen either Barbie or Oppenheimer, the summer’s dual box office hits. Get your priorities straight, Antony!
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: A historic U.S.-South Korea-Japan summit is in the works, an AI hackathon previews the national security risks of cutting-edge tech, Space Force sets up a new unit of satellite killers, and more.
Old Frenemies Bond Over New(ish) Enemies
Love, or some fuzzy geopolitical version of it, is in the air this week as U.S. President Joe Biden gets ready to host for the first time a trilateral summit with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, two of Washington’s most important allies in the Asia-Pacific.
Getting South Korea and Japan to overcome historic distrust and tension has been something of a white whale for successive U.S. administrations, but Washington has worked to clear those hurdles with increasing urgency given its new global competition and rising military tensions with archrival China.
Shelter from the storm. Biden will host South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday at Camp David in Maryland, the famous U.S. presidential retreat synonymous with major diplomatic breakthroughs in the past.
As with all of these sorts of big meetings, the outcomes are usually pre-determined by the leaders’ underlings well before they actually meet in person, but nothing’s locked in until it’s announced. Among the big deliverables expected out of this summit, administration insiders tell SitRep, are:
A new initiative to boost intelligence sharing between Japan, South Korea, and the United States; upgrading early-warning missile launch detection (with an eye toward North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs); trilateral joint military exercises with a special emphasis on anti-submarine warfare drills; setting up a crisis hotline between the three countries; and, on the diplomatic front, a first-ever joint “statement of principles” between the three countries outlining their shared vision and priorities. The three countries are also expected to announce a handful of new economic initiatives aimed at strengthening their supply chain security for semiconductors and other critical technologies.
Unresolved tensions blowing in the wind. Tokyo and Seoul have long had an uneasy relationship over political and legal disputes stemming from deep historical wounds over Japan’s occupation of Korea from the early 1900s to 1945. Those disputes remain hot-button political issues in both countries and have stymied trilateral cooperation with Washington in the past.
But the times, they are a changin’. The growing threats from China and North Korea are pushing Tokyo and Seoul to begin finally (maybe) burying the hatchet, and both countries have concurrently boosted cooperation with NATO countries in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s a hope this [trilateral meeting] will become institutionalized, this will become a regular, predictable strategic cooperation,” said Sheila Smith, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. Japan-South Korea cooperation up to this point “has been a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back process over the years.”
Experts say a lot of the credit is due to Yoon, the conservative leader who took the presidency last May and has made repairing ties with Japan a top priority. Kishida, in turn, has been receptive.
Top U.S. officials are hailing the rapprochement and summit as a landmark moment. “This is a major move on the chessboard that just doesn’t kind of come and go,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told the Washington Post. “It’s creating both a new normal that’s been institutionalized into the politics of each country, and a new fact in the geostrategic landscape.”
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that all three leaders were prioritizing initiatives that would outlast their time in office. “All three of them are looking at the future—and not just the near future, but the far future—and making sure that, to the degree that is possible, we cement this level of cooperation and look for active ways to keep it going.” But, he added as a hedge, “nobody can predict perfectly what the future is going to look like.”
Are hard rains a-gonna fall? Kirby’s comments signify that there is still a big question lingering over the summit: Will the good times keep rolling after these three leaders leave office? It was an open secret in Seoul and Tokyo that Yoon and Kishida’s predecessors, Moon Jae-in and Shinzo Abe, respectively, had terrible personal rapport and Moon had little interest in repairing ties with Japan. It’s unclear whether Yoon and Kishida’s successors will keep the trilateral momentum going.
And this doesn’t include the giant question mark hanging over the U.S. presidential election in 2024. Even though everyone running is tripping over themselves to prove they’re a China hawk, it’s unclear whether whoever takes the White House in 2024 will prioritize tending alliances like the one Yoon and Kishida are cementing with Biden this week.
Let’s Get Personnel
U.S. special envoy to Iran Robert Malley, who is currently on leave from his official role amid a security clearance review, is set to join Princeton University as a visiting professor this fall.
Robert Greenway, a former Trump National Security Council senior director, is joining the Heritage Foundation as a senior advisor.
Also in think tank land, Audrey Kurth Cronin is set to become the inaugural director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Security and Technology after a stint at American University in Washington, D.C.
Over in Russia, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, head of Russia’s aerospace forces and a former commander of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has reportedly been removed from his leadership role in the war and placed on house arrest over his ties to the Wagner Group.
In Ottawa, Canada has tapped diplomat Kevin Hamilton as its next ambassador to Turkey. Hamilton is currently director-general of international security policy at Canada’s foreign ministry.
And in literal moving news, the Australian Embassy has moved into its swanky new home on Scott Circle in Washington, D.C. The embassy’s temporary offices at the top of the National Geographic Museum were starting to get pretty stuffy.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Hacking away. Our colleague Rishi Iyengar crashed a big hackathon conference in Las Vegas to learn about how techies and Washington wonks are bracing for all the good, bad, and ugly that artificial intelligence systems will unleash on government and society. The organizers at DEF CON’s “AI Village” hosted 2,200 hacking sessions to stress test, or “red team,” AI models to learn how much damage they can do. Bottom line: We don’t know how bad (or good) things could get with the surge in publicly available AI systems, but the government needs to brace for impact. And as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Anshu Roy wrote for Foreign Policy in our latest print issue, AI systems are already entering the proverbial situation room and could change how foreign policy is made.
Star wars. The U.S. Space Force has activated its first unit dedicated to taking down adversaries’ satellite systems if our generation’s cold wars ever turn hot, as Space.com reports. Space Force established the 75th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the Space Delta 7 contingent, tracking adversaries’ space capabilities. In addition to upping the Space Force’s game on targeting foreign satellite capabilities, the 75th also has a really cool squadron patch.
Whack-a-mole. The social media giant Meta (the artist formerly known as Facebook) has failed in its game of digital whack-a-mole to halt the online influence of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group. That’s according to a new investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British think tank that found 114 Wagner-linked accounts across Facebook and Instagram glorifying the group or posting recruitment information to fill its ranks. (Wagner has been accused of widespread atrocities from Ukraine to Mali.) Much of the propaganda that the think tank found echoed the Kremlin’s line that it is attempting to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a common falsified propaganda tack by Moscow to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
Hawk o’clock. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is aiming to revive his flagging presidential campaign by focusing on China. Jack reports that DeSantis is preparing to make a major speech in the coming days that will offer hawkish pushback on China’s security threats to the United States along the belt-and-road and stateside. “This is going to be, ‘We’re in a very broad-based, whole-of-society context with China,’” one surrogate said.
Fun fact: A flock of hawks is called a “kettle.” You would think a regal bird of prey would warrant a cooler name than that.
Hot Mic Moment
We highlight this exchange at the State Department press briefing this Monday without further comment:
Vedant Patel, principal deputy State Department spokesperson: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologies for being a little tardy. I have nothing at the top today, so Matt, please feel free to kick us off.
Matt Lee [Associated Press]: OK, except that I don’t have any questions that I think will elicit any kind of a newsworthy response from you, so I’ll defer.
Put on Your Radar
Friday, Aug. 18: Biden hosts Yoon and Kishida in a trilateral summit at Camp David.
Sunday, Aug. 20: Ecuador is set for early presidential and legislative elections after candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated this month leaving a political rally in Quito. In Guatemala, progressive Bernardo Arévalo and conservative Sandra Torres square off in a runoff election to be the Central American country’s next president. Spain and England are set to square off in Sydney, Australia, in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final.
Tuesday, Aug. 22: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is set to host a summit of the BRICS countries near Johannesburg. That’s Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, in case you’d forgotten. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is set to attend in person, while Russian President Vladimir Putin—who’s at risk of getting pulled in on an International Criminal Court warrant for allegedly masterminding the deportation of Ukrainian children—is reportedly slated to give a virtual address.
Wednesday, Aug. 23: The Republican presidential contenders are set to test their policy bona fides in the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosted by Fox News. Incumbent Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has led the landlocked country since the military forced out Robert Mugabe in 2017, faces 10 other candidates in a general election.
Quote of the Week
“There was a delicious mushroom dish. I was not aware that these mushrooms had hallucinogenic properties. I learned that later.”
—U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen cops to accidentally eating a dish that contained magic mushrooms on her recent trip to China. Make sure to note that down in your security clearance renewal form, Janet.
This Week’s Most Read
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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Celebs, they’re just like us. Yale historian Timothy Snyder may be a household name because of his bestselling books and viral intro course on Ukrainian history, but just like you and me, he has to duck to get out of the picture when his partner is on a Zoom call. It’s okay, Tim, we’re still not used to working from home, either.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
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