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A look ahead at Biden's Camp David retreat with South Korea and Japan leaders

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden is hosting the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David tomorrow, the famous presidential retreat in the woods of Maryland. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on why they're being invited now and why Camp David has such a storied history in American diplomacy.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The United States, Japan and South Korea have never held a standalone summit like this, in major part because Japan and South Korea have had decades of disagreements.

JEFFREY HORNUNG: That stems primarily from Japan's occupation of Korea back at the early part of the 20th century.

KHALID: That's Jeffrey Hornung. He focuses on East Asia at the RAND Corporation.

HORNUNG: Historically, relations have never been great.

KHALID: But there's a window now. Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have been improving. Plus, here at home, there's a president eager to strengthen alliances and counter China's influence in the region. On Friday, the three leaders will pledge to improve security cooperation and issue something they're calling the Camp David principles. A senior Biden administration official told me Camp David is seen as a place to signal intimacy and importance. That goes back to World War II and the camp's first foreign visitor, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Alison Mann is a historian with the State Department.

ALISON MANN: 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.

KHALID: FDR called this place Shangri-La. It was his rustic paradise 60 miles outside of Washington. But when Dwight Eisenhower came into office, he renamed it.

MANN: He thought Shangri-La was too fancy of a name for a Kansas farm boy.

KHALID: He added picnic tables, outdoor barbecues and even a bomb shelter. And in 1959, during the Cold War, he invited the leader of the Soviet Union.

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DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Mr. Khrushchev will visit Washington for two or three days.

MANN: 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.

KHALID: There's no street traffic, no airplanes overhead. Michael Giorgione is one of the few people who's lived there year-round. He was the former naval commanding officer at Camp David.

MICHAEL GIORGIONE: There's no one there unless it's the president or the staff who's invited. And it's just incredibly quiet, peaceful. And I think that's what it lends itself to - the diplomatic tone you can achieve there, where people can sit down and not be distracted and just talk.

KHALID: It's why, in 1978, former President Jimmy Carter invited the leaders of Israel and Egypt to the camp to broker a peace deal after decades of violence and war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIMMY CARTER: When we first arrived at Camp David, the first thing upon which we agreed was to ask the people of the world to pray that our negotiations would be successful.

KHALID: The Camp David Accords, as they came to be known, cemented this wooded cabin site as a place to forge friendships with foreign leaders. Here's Michael Giorgione again.

GIORGIONE: If I were invited to Camp David, I think if I were a world leader, I'd rather - I'd value that more than going on the White House. It's like bringing someone into your family room.

KHALID: Former President Donald Trump preferred to use his own properties for events. For the last eight years, no world leader has been invited to the family room. Jeff Hornung with the Rand Corporation says that is part of what makes this meeting tomorrow so significant.

HORNUNG: 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.

KHALID: It's a sign Biden is trying to prioritize Asia. A senior Biden administration official told me they'll announce plans tomorrow for more military exercises, a new hotline among all three countries and an agreement to consult each other in crises. Asma Khalid, NPR News. 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.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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