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Biden will be talking to his counterparts from Japan and South Korea at Camp David

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden meets today with the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David. That's the famous presidential retreat in the woods of Maryland known as a scene for diplomacy. It's the first time since 2015 that any foreign leader is being invited there. And to get a sense of the significance of this meeting, I'm joined by two NPR correspondents - Asma Khalid. She covers the White House and will be going to Camp David. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: And Anthony Kuhn from his base in Seoul. He'll bring us the perspectives from Japan and South Korea this morning. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Asma, let's start with the why. Why is President Biden having this meeting now?

KHALID: Well, he's really been wanting to strengthen alliances around the globe. And this, of course, plays into that. But Japan and South Korea are also very strategically located partners for the U.S. You know, much of President Biden's foreign policy is about countering China's influence. And here you, of course, have two countries that are key allies in the Indo Pacific.

KUHN: That's right, Asma. But let's remember that ties between these two neighbors have been in the deep, deep freeze in recent years. They've been mired in these historical trade and security disputes until this year, when, with some nudging from the U.S., the two countries' leaders had their first summit in 12 years back in March. Now President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida both want to start a new chapter. They want to strengthen their respective alliances with the U.S. So they've begun to address these various disputes, and the U.S. wants to lock in the progress. They want to institutionalize the three-way cooperation while they've got these mutually friendly leaders in power.

FADEL: A lot to tackle here. Asma, this is the first time in eight years that foreign leaders have been invited to Camp David. Why is it noteworthy, choosing this particular setting?

KHALID: Well, I spoke to a former naval commanding officer at Camp David. His name is Michael Giorgione, and he's kind of been an eyewitness to history. He's seen various foreign leaders over the years come and go. And he told me that Camp David is a - just a really quiet, peaceful place to forge personal relationships. You know, it's about 60 miles outside of Washington.

MICHAEL GIORGIONE: It's just this feeling of this rustic, pretty low-key mountaintop retreat in the woods where people can just come and talk to each other. That's the whole spirit and the aura of the place.

KHALID: And, you know, Leila, the camp has a more intimate feel than the formality of an official White House visit. It also has, of course, the gravitas that comes with its long legacy of diplomacy that dates back to FDR and World War II. You know, there's this very famous photo of FDR meeting with the British prime minister Winston Churchill. They would go fishing; they would talk and, you know, kind of map out what they envisioned the world would look like when World War II ended. Then you fast forward to the Cold War, when former President Eisenhower invited the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

And then, you know, I think many folks, when they think of Camp David, think of 1978 and this very famous diplomatic negotiation when former President Jimmy Carter invited the leaders of Israel and Egypt. That ultimately led to the Camp David Accords. And I will say that there is no doubt this White House is trying to tap into that 80-year history of diplomacy at this site. By having it here at Camp David, it really elevates the relationship that the U.S. is seeking with Japan and South Korea.

FADEL: So they're sending a message with the location. Anthony, can the results of this summit hold up if there's political change in South Korea and Japan?

KUHN: Well, I think U.S. officials publicly admit that domestic politics in South Korea and Japan are the main challenge they face. But they also insist that Seoul and Tokyo have got to put aside their domestic politics, their historical disputes and focus on present-day threats such as China and North Korea. Now, it's not that South Korea and Japan aren't concerned about those threats or that they don't support their alliances with the U.S. They do. But especially in South Korea, some people are not happy that, as they see it, they, and not Japan, are making the big concessions to break the ice with Tokyo. Now, I spoke to Choi Eunmi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul. And here's what she said.

CHOI EUNMI: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "I'm not sure the U.S. is neutral in this case," she says. "The U.S. clearly wants to make the South Korea-Japan bilateral relationship fit its national interest." So she adds, for example, that while the leaders insist they share the same values and interests, their priorities are in fact different. The U.S. and Japan perceive China as the main threat. South Korea's main concern is North Korea, with which it's technically still at war. And that's why we're not likely to hear any pledge of military cooperation explicitly targeting China come out of this summit.

FADEL: Well, what are the specific commitments the three countries are making today, Asma?

KHALID: So they're announcing a commitment to step up security coordination. That includes more comprehensive military exercises, the establishment of a crisis hotline and a pledge to consult each other in these moments of crises. Really, it seems like they're trying to establish an understanding that a security challenge for one country poses a concern to the other within this trilateral relationship. And they're trying to deepen the coordination to ensure that this remains a durable relationship. Moving forward, they say that they will meet annually.

FADEL: And, Anthony, how could this summit impact the region, particularly the three countries' relations with China?

KUHN: Well, from Beijing's perspective, they look at Yoon and Kishida, and see them inching closer and closer to Washington and away from them. And they've warned their neighbors not to go too far. China, of course, does not want to drive Japan and South Korea further into Washington's camp than they already have. And, for economic reasons, all these countries want to put a floor under their relations and keep them stable. But because Beijing perceives this summit as a hostile move targeting them, it could keep top-level diplomatic exchanges on hold, and so putting a floor under ties among these countries might have to wait.

FADEL: That's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul and Asma Khalid in Washington. She's headed to Camp David. Thanks to you both.

KHALID: My pleasure.

KUHN: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.