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How Biden used Camp David to elevate a summit with Japan and South Korea

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, President Joe Biden and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, meet on Fri, Aug. 18, 2023, at Camp David.
Andrew Harnik
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Associated Press
South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, President Joe Biden and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, meet on Fri, Aug. 18, 2023, at Camp David.

Updated August 18, 2023 at 5:32 PM ET

The United States has agreed to expand its security and economic ties with Japan and South Korea following a historic leaders' summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the woods of Maryland that occupies a storied place in American diplomacy.

It was the first stand-alone summit between the three nations. Japan and South Korea have had decades of disagreements dating back to Japan's occupation of Korea in the early 20th century.

But the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been improving, and Biden is eager to strengthen U.S. ties with both countries as part of his broader push to counter China's influence in the region.

At Camp David, President Biden held a series of talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol where they put the final touches on what they've called the Camp David Principles.

Biden said that the leaders have a shared commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He also said they would address economic coercion, and aggression in the South China Sea – a clear reference to China.

"I can think of no more fitting location to begin the next era of cooperation – a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities," Biden said, during a joint press conference. "In the months and years ahead, we're going to continue to seize those possibilities together."

Both Yoon and Kishida acknowledged the significance of the setting in their remarks.

"Here at Camp David, numerous historical meetings have taken place and it is a huge honor to have printed a fresh page in its history with this meeting," Kishida said.

In a trio of documents — the Spirit of Camp David, the Camp David Principles and the Commitment to Consult – they agreed to annual multi-domain military exercises, and deeper information sharing on North Korean missile launches and cyber activities. They agreed to establish a new hotline for swift consultation during crises.

Biden also said they would work on development finance for low- and middle-income countries – an effort to compete with China's Belt and Road initiative.

The three countries also plan to pilot a new early warning system for supply chain issues for things like critical minerals or batteries, as well as cancer research, and artificial intelligence.

The leaders also pledged their three countries will continue to meet annually. Biden said expected a deeper trilateral relationship will be able to endure even when political leadership changes or domestic attitudes shift.

An invitation to Camp David is a rare gift

Biden hosted the meeting at Camp David to demonstrate that the three countries have reached a new stage in their relationship.

"We're opening a new era, and we're making sure that era has staying power," Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday.

A visit to Camp David is much rarer than an invitation to the White House, noted Jeffrey Hornung, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who specializes in Japan and Indo-Pacific diplomacy.

"The symbolism of Camp David is important because the leaders of Japan and South Korea know that this is something special, you need to be invited, the president only does this on certain occasions," Hornung said.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt fishing in a stream at Camp David in May 1943. The presidential retreat was known as "Shangri-La" at the time.
File photo / White House Historical Association / Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
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White House Historical Association / Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt fishing in a stream at Camp David in May 1943. The presidential retreat was known as "Shangri-La" at the time.

Camp David has a special place in U.S. diplomacy

The rustic presidential retreat is some 60 miles away from the pressure cooker of Washington, comprising about 140 acres within an isolated, hilly forest.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to use it as a place to deepen foreign ties when he invited British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for talks in the midst of World War II.

"In 1943, Churchill visited, and he and Roosevelt spent a great deal of time out in the woods, fishing, talking, and really that was when they mapped out what the future of the world would look like at the end of the war," said Alison Mann, a historian at the National Museum of American Diplomacy at the State Department.

At the time, Roosevelt called the retreat Shangri-la. But when Dwight Eisenhower came into office, he renamed it. "He thought Shangri-la was too fancy of a name for a Kansas farm boy," Mann said.

Eisenhower added picnic tables, outdoor barbecues, and even a bomb shelter.

And in 1959, during the Cold War, he invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev there for talks.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev outside the main lodge at Camp David on Sept. 25, 1959.
Pool photo / Associated Press
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Associated Press
President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev outside the main lodge at Camp David on Sept. 25, 1959.

"The objective that Eisenhower had in inviting Khrushchev specifically to Camp David was to use the beautiful scenery and a more relaxed atmosphere to really get to know Khrushchev," Mann said.

In 1978, then-President Jimmy Carter invited the leaders of Israel and Egypt to the camp to broker a peace deal after decades of violence and war.

The Camp David Accords — as they came to be known — cemented this wooded cabin site as a place to forge friendships with foreign leaders.

President Jimmy Carter, center, met with Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David on Sept. 6, 1978.
White House handout / Associated Press
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Associated Press
President Jimmy Carter, center, met with Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David on Sept. 6, 1978.

There are few distractions at Camp David

Michael Giorgione is one of the few people who has lived at Camp David year-round, when he was the former naval commanding officer there from 1999 to 2001.

Giorgione, who wrote a book about his experiences called "Inside Camp David," was there when former President Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to the retreat for two weeks of talks in July 2000. He recalled seeing Clinton shuttle between the leaders' cabins late at night, trying but ultimately failing to broker a peace deal.

President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walk on the grounds of Camp David at the start of the Mideast summit on July 11, 2000.
Ron Edmonds / Associated Press
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Associated Press
President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walk on the grounds of Camp David at the start of the Mideast summit on July 11, 2000.

When George W. Bush took office the following year, Giorgione said he quickly invited British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Camp David to try to break the ice with a leader who had been close to Clinton.

"There's no one there unless it's the president or the staff who's invited. And it's just incredibly quiet and peaceful. And I think that's what lends itself to the diplomatic tone you can achieve here, where people can sit down and not be distracted and just talk," Giorgione said in an interview.

"It's like bringing someone in your family room," he said.

President George W. Bush walks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Feb, 23, 2001.
Doug Mills / Associated Press
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Associated Press
President George W. Bush walks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Feb, 23, 2001.

But for the last eight years, no world leader has been invited to this family room. Camp David's role in diplomacy was sidelined during the Trump administration, when former President Donald Trump used his own properties for events.

In 2019, Trump disclosed that he had planned secret talks at Camp David between then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and major Taliban leaders, only to abruptly cancel the meeting.

At the press conference, Biden took a direct swipe at his predecessor, who is the frontrunner in the race to become the Republican candidate in the 2024 election, slamming his foreign policy.

Biden said: "His America First policy, walking away from the rest of the world, has made us weaker, not stronger."

NPR's Leigh Walden contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Members of an honor guard stand at attention for the arrival of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to Camp David on June 26, 2008.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press
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Associated Press
Members of an honor guard stand at attention for the arrival of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to Camp David on June 26, 2008.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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