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[Wang Son-taek] From Camp Bonifas to Camp David

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 24, 2023 - 05:30

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In the Republic of Korea, Aug. 18 has long been a day to remember.

On that day in 1976, US soldiers were attacked at the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom by North Korean soldiers with axes, and two US officers were brutally killed. The US military unit in charge of Panmunjom at the time was Camp Kitty Hawk, which was changed to Camp Bonifas in remembrance of Capt. Bonifas, who was killed horribly in that incident. Forty-seven years later, in Camp David, Maryland, the leaders of South Korea, the US, and Japan gathered to announce their trilateral cooperation. On Aug. 18, a new history was written. The location that symbolizes the day has moved from Camp Bonifas to Camp David.

Trilateral cooperation between the three nations is one step lower than a military alliance. Still, the scope of cooperation is comprehensive, and the possibility of military cooperation is almost that of a regular alliance. The partnership could mean changing the international political landscape around the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. However, it still needs to be determined whether the trilateral cooperative will function as a sustainable multilateral cooperative force like NATO, because there are lights and shadows in the summit's results.

The first reason for positive evaluation is that the capacity to effectively respond to the threat of North Korea's preemptive nuclear attack has increased. Since early last year, North Korea has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea's military threats served as a background of growing anxiety in South Korea. The three-way cooperative body is expected to ease Koreans' anxiety in that it seeks the highest level of cooperation in economy, technology, human exchanges as well as security.

Second, the trilateral cooperation will help give confidence and stability in US foreign policy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the United States has been shaken as a hegemon that should maintain world order, especially embarrassed by China's sudden rise. With the creation of the Quad and AUKUS, the three-way cooperation is a visible diplomatic success, and the US could feel some relaxation. We might expect that the US can show some sense of leadership, patience and inclusiveness if it feels confidence, pride and responsibility.

Third, it is an excellent opportunity for Korea to overcome the diplomatic trauma of a weak and small country. Korea suffered a disastrous failure in 1910 when Imperial Japan annexed Korea. In the process, the UK supported Japan through the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1903, and Japan was emboldened by the US in the Katsura-Taft agreement in 1905. These memories have troubled Korea, leading to fundamental skepticism of and displeasure with the major powers. Now, at the invitation of the United States, South Korea is on an equal footing with Japan, the former assailant, and is a full member of the security dialogue. Korea has a reason to settle its resentment dating to 118 years ago, escape the trauma and contribute to the international community as an advanced power.

Trilateral cooperation is welcome, but success is not guaranteed. Instead, it should be recognized that there are severe obstacles in terms of practicality or sustainability.

First, it will be a "self-harm card" for the trilateral cooperation to become an organization to check and isolate China. China is indeed showing deviant behavior, but it should also be emphasized that China is not challenging the US leadership head-on. China remains a developing country with a per capita income of around $14,000, compared to about $80,000 in the United States. This means that there are still opportunities for the US to lure China into the liberal order rather than isolate it.

However, willingness to check China is evident if you look at the documents from Camp David. If the cooperative operates in this direction, it is more likely to bounce off and become a headache that disrupts the US-led order. That would make the trilateral cooperation nominal.

In the case of Korea, it is impossible to maintain a long-term confrontation with China. South Korea is a divided country, and help from China and Russia is essential to handle the situation regarding North Korea. Korea's geopolitical conditions with China are qualitatively different from those of the United States and Japan. Suppose the trilateral cooperation acts as an organization to isolate China. In that case, South Korea will face a situation in which losses in its national interests will increase and be unbearable.

The paradoxical relationship between Korea and Japan is also a potential cause of instability in the future of trilateral cooperation. Although the Korean and Japanese governments have taken measures to improve relations due to the decision by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, numerous mines are still buried between the two countries. If Japan provokes Koreans over issues surrounding territorial claims to the Dokdo islets, history textbooks and Yasukuni shrine visits, Korea-Japan relations are bound to fall again at any time.

A shift in thinking is necessary for the trilateral cooperative body to succeed.

One example is to expand trilateral cooperation, accept China as a member and develop it into a genuine collective security organization. In the case of the United States, if China follows the US-led international order, there will be no need to oppose China's accession. For China, jumping on the US-led order can be advantageous as it needs to achieve stable economic development over the next several decades.

If China is isolated and Japan despises Korea, trilateral cooperation could dissipate into foam. The place to remember Aug. 18 would return to Camp Bonifas, an outpost of brutal war, from Camp David, a headquarters for peace and prosperity.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.