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At the Camp David Summit, Expect Unity in a Press for Regional Security

The three parties meeting at Camp David are well aware that Kim Jong Un is building an arsenal of weapons that threaten the peace of Northeast Asia and beyond.



Prime Minister Kishida, US President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol pose for a photo before their trilateral summit on May 21 in Hiroshima. (Pool photograph)

President Joe Biden hosts Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Yoon Suk-Yeol for an August 18 summit at Camp David. There, the three leaders will discuss the scale of the military threats posed by North Korea. And they will consider how to respond with robust deterrence. 

In the background is North Korea's despotic leader Kim Jong Un. He presided over a military council in early August, telling the army to make preparations for war.

A photograph issued through state media showed him pointing at a map of South Korea, while generals took notes of his orders.  

Kim Jong Un was promoted to the highest rank of Marshal in the Korean People's Army. The move, in July 2012, consolidated his position as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces at the age of 28. 

But when he was growing up, it was his older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who seemed destined to lead an army of around a million men.

Kim Jong Un inspects the test launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18 on July 12. (©KCNA via Chosun News Agency)

Young Generalissimo

This is discussed in a fascinating new book about North Korea by Sung-Yoon Lee. When he was a child, adults addressed Kim Jong Nam respectfully by his military rank. And that rank rose with each birthday. On his third birthday, he was given the title of a one-star brigadier general. The next year, he was promoted to major general. When he turned five, he also became lieutenant general. At six, a full four-star general. At seven, marshal, and on his eighth birthday, finally he became generalissimo of the North Korean army. 

However, as an adult, Jong Nam never got to lead an army and spent several years in exile. He died after being exposed to VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. It was widely believed that the assassination was ordered by Kim Jong Un. 

Kim Jong Nam before his untimely death.

No Peace Treaty

The leaders attending the Camp David Summit in Maryland on August 18 will discuss whether North Korea's leader is genuinely preparing for war, or whether he's still playing games like a spoiled child.

The North has never signed a formal peace agreement with the United States or South Korea. Pyongyang's propaganda, therefore, tells its people that they could be attacked at any time. Their military's duty is to ensure the regime continues.

North Korea's defense budget consumes about 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). This enables it to maintain the fifth-largest army in the world. However, because the country's economy is far smaller than that of its neighbors, its army is less well-funded than other East Asian nations. 

South Korea has a military budget of around five times that of the North. Seoul has 625,000 highly trained military personnel, reinforced by 58,000 US troops based in the South and in Japan.


The budget for Japan's Self-Defense Forces this year is ¥6.8 trillion JPY ($52 billion USD). That is a significant increase from previous years. And it was authorized by the cabinet in part to counter the threat from North Korea.

The most pressing concern is the frequency of North Korea's rocket launches, many of which have landed in the Sea of Japan. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, North Korea has conducted "one missile launch after another" this year. 

On July 12, Pyongyang carried out a second flight test of its Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile.

On July 16, joint defense exercises were conducted by Japan-US-ROK due to multiple North Korean ballistic missile threats. Also on the High Seas of the Sea of Japan. (©ROK Ministry of Defense via Kyodo)

Deeper Defense Ties

When the defense ministers of Japan, South Korea, and the US met in June, they agreed to share intelligence. Specifically, to share real-time intelligence about North Korean missile launches. Soldiers from the three countries also recently took part in Operation Talisman Sabre in Australia. That was a large-scale training exercise involving many nations.

And soon after the Camp David Summit, South Korea and the US will hold their largest-ever joint exercise. An operation known as Ulchi Freedom Shield will start in the region on August 21. It will mobilize tens of thousands of troops from both sides. 

Reuters says that one of the purposes of the exercise is to improve their ability to respond to North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats. North Korea has denounced the allies' military drills as a rehearsal for nuclear war.

US President Joe Biden boards Marine One, also with his grandson Beau Biden Jr, en route to Camp David, from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. On June 24, 2023. (©REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz)

Historic Meeting 

The United States expects the trilateral summit at Camp David with Japan and South Korea will be "historic." 

America is aware that Kim Jong Un is doing all he can to build an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Those not only threaten the peace of Northeast Asia but could also reach the US mainland.

The wording of the communique from the Camp David summit is therefore likely to include phrases similar to those used by the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea when they met Mr Blinken in July.

At the meeting, they spoke of an "ironclad" commitment to support each other, backed by the full range of capabilities. Those include - on the part of the United States - nuclear.

The three countries also pledged to work closely with the international community to curb North Korean cybercrime. And those include cryptocurrency heists - through which it funds its weapons programs.


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward.


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