The South Korea-Japan-United States Trilateral Hotline: A Reminder of the Importance of Crisis Communications

By Christian Steins on January 18, 2024

In October 2023, a government official from South Korea announced the successful activation of a new trilateral hotline directly connecting top national security advisors from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The hotline–which took only three months from its announcement at a Camp David summit to its activation–came about surprisingly quickly, via international dialogue, and with a clear commitment to communication from all parties. The newly established trilateral hotline comes at a time of heightened aggression by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Indo-Pacific and an increase in the severity of the nuclear risks and threats emanating from both the PRC and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The establishment of the trilateral hotline is a positive reminder to those in the international nuclear policy and security fields that crisis communication channels are critical, if often overlooked, tools in risk reduction toolkits.

Cover photo by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Uncertain Times and Nuclear Tensions Highlight A Clear Need for Crisis Communications 

In August, the three countries’ leaders held a summit at Camp David focused on addressing concerns about the steady rise in regional tensions in the Indo-Pacific over the past year. Topics of discussion included the strengthening of diplomatic and military commitments in response to continued aggressive tactics by Chinese coast guard vessels in the South China Sea, as well as deepening concerns regarding the threat of nuclear weapons from the PRC and North Korea. Among several concerning actions from North Korea regarding its nuclear arsenal, the regime has most recently issued a series of ominous statements threatening nuclear conflict with its neighbor to the south. 

Intelligence reports released just weeks after the summit assert that the PRC has significantly expanded its nuclear arsenal, surpassing the Department of Defense (DoD)’s 2021 estimate of 400 new warheads this year. According to the DoD’s 2023 China Military Power Report (CMPR), by May of this year, the PRC already possessed over 500 operational nuclear warheads. Well over the DoD’s 2021 estimation that the PRC would possess 400 warheads by 2023. If this aggressive rate of production continues, the report predicts that they will more than double their arsenal to over 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. At a period when tensions between the nuclear powers continue to flare, the rebounding effects of the PRC’s nuclear buildup are already visible. The rapid expansion of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal has led the United States and Russia to prioritize their deterrence capabilities through the modernization of their nuclear weapons, reversing decades of progress in dismantling the caches built up during the Cold War.

Amid these concerns, the South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. leaders announced their agreement to establish a trilateral hotline in August 2023. The rapid and efficient process that followed demonstrates the importance of hotlines and provides a case study for the necessary diplomatic efforts to establish crisis communications. 

The Swift Diplomatic Process Behind this New Trilateral Hotline

In August, President Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met at Camp David for the ad hoc summit, focused on improving their collective security. In a joint statement, the heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining open lines of direct communication using the new hotline. In addition to the initial statement, the leaders released a confirmation of their commitment to open communication in writing; they also put forward a set of guiding principles for the responsible conduct of diplomatic behavior expected among regional actors during this period of tension.

Examining the establishment of this trilateral hotline, it is clear that the three leaders urgently wanted these beneficial utilities. In their announcement, the heads of state committed to providing funding and support for research necessary to establish this trilateral hotline. From that date, it took the coalition just under three months to successfully develop and implement the new secure hotline. While details on the technology deployed by the new hotline are unknown to the public, the relatively short period it took to create indicates the feasibility of installing similar hotlines in the future among the U.S. and other allies. For instance, the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC), originally established as a channel for direct communication between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is a good example to showcase how the U.S. has built on the success of this hotline concept and expanded its bilateral connection to over 50 international partners. Hopefully, the U.S. will continue to embody this trend of expanding communication channels now on a broader multilateral platform. The speed at which this trilateral agreement was reached, allocation of funding and research, clear diplomatic statements on communication and guiding principles issued, and the activation of the secure network serve as an example of just how quickly secure multilateral channels can be designed and connected between state leaders.

Crisis Communication Hotlines in the Regional Context: Examining Benefits and Potential Vulnerabilities  

Considering the healthy diplomatic relationship that the United States shares with Japan and South Korea, it is important to examine the additive benefits that this trilateral hotline can provide for these countries. In comparing this new hotline to its predecessors, we can see that its function and purpose remain the same. When appropriately used, crisis hotlines serve as a confidence-building measure and a tool for ensuring clarity between the stakeholders on both ends of the line. The first such hotline, established between Washington and Moscow in 1963, allowed leaders to engage in direct dialogue with their allies and counterparts, communicate intentions clearly, and clarify misunderstandings with an adversary in times of crisis. The trilateral hotline will serve a similar purpose, allowing leaders of the three countries to maintain a permanently active and secure channel for open dialogue during heightened tensions. 

This hotline is novel in some respects, primarily in its service as a crisis communications channel directly linking three countries together in this manner for the first time. Additionally, as a diplomatic maneuver, it signals a fresh sign of American commitment in the region. That said, it is not the first hotline to be implemented in the Indo-Pacific, nor is it likely to be the last. The most well-known hotline in the region is the channel linking North and South Korea, which has sustained short- and long-term closures, served to ease tensions, and prevented numerous close calls of conflict between the two countries. Looking at additional examples of existing and attempted hotlines among states in the Indo-Pacific helps to identify and understand the driving factors behind successful crisis communication hotlines. 

One notable example of an existing regional crisis communications channel is the bilateral hotline linking the defense ministries of Japan and China, which was put into service in May 2023 after years of diplomatic negotiations. While the Japan-China hotline is a sign of a new effort at opening diplomatic communications, some experts have questioned its efficacy and survivability. Concerns raised about the utility of the hotline include questions of how effective it would be during a crisis if its operators have limited authorization, referencing the potential limitations that Chinese counterparts have to make decisions or communicate messages in a concise amount of time. After all, the inherent purpose of a hotline is to enable rapid communications, often necessary to defuse a crisis. 

As for concerns regarding the longevity of the hotline with China, some critics cite the failure of the hotline between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards, activated in 2017, as a cautionary tale. The final straw came in August 2023 when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blasted a Philippine fishing boat with water cannons, and Beijing refused to pick up multiple distress calls. A few days later, a representative from the Philippine government announced that the hotline was now considered defunct. 

The closure of the Philippine-China hotline was a definitive setback to effective crisis management between the two partners and crisis management on the world stage. Crisis hotlines inherently serve two purposes, the first and foremost of which is to provide a reliable communication channel for open dialogue in a crisis scenario to mitigate an ongoing crisis or prevent the crisis from taking place. The second is to act as a confidence-building measure between two parties through a regular exchange of messages to ensure the hotline is permanently active. By failing to respond to requests for communication on the hotline, the Chinese effectively neutralized the hotline’s purpose as a direct line for urgent communication needs. Additionally, this irresponsible behavior in the PRC’s refusal to respond contributes to the growing international skepticism towards the PRC regarding crisis management – and severely undermines the Philippines’ confidence in their PRC counterparts. There is little motivation for a state to establish a hotline with a government characterized by its refusal to use one. 

Granted, these vulnerabilities are likely not a significant concern for the newly established hotline; there is little comparison between the above mentioned countries’ tenuous diplomatic relations versus the well-established positive relations between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Nevertheless, this new trilateral hotline is a positive reminder to those in the international policy and security field of the utility of crisis communication channels in the risk reduction toolkit. In a crisis, diplomatic, intelligence, and military hotlines provide state leaders a channel to engage in open dialogue, which, as IST research points out, “can help check deteriorating trust between nations and prevent inadvertent escalation.” When tensions are high between states and the risk of escalation is prevalent, direct diplomatic communication has repeatedly proven to be an effective method to prevent kinetic action.  

Hotlines are More Important than Ever as the International Security Environment Continues to Degrade

Whether amongst allies or adversaries, open and active hotlines represent a step toward improving international crisis communication and advancing risk reduction goals amongst the nuclear-armed states and their regional allies. As the threat of nuclear conflict increases, the nuclear-armed states and the decision makers within their ranks must have the option and capability to avoid misperception and avert catastrophe by exchanging messages on a secure network.

This imperative for increasing open and secure communication during a nuclear crisis is one of the objectives behind the Institute for Security and Technology’s (IST) CATALINK project. This initiative aims to expand international hotlines to enable multilateral crisis communications among the nine nuclear-armed states. The project engages with stakeholders to help promote a shared understanding among states of the benefits of a connected communications network that enables the nuclear powers to communicate directly. There is no easy solution to the complex issue of global nuclear proliferation. Yet, we cannot disregard the lessons learned during the crises of the Cold War. The utility of crisis hotlines should not be a lesson that world leaders must relearn from a new crisis that is too close for comfort. This trilateral hotline illustrates the value that should be placed on having the ability to send critical diplomatic messages in a crisis scenario where the threat of a nuclear exchange is looming. 

Indeed, that threat is increasing on a rapid global scale. Tensions between nuclear powers are reaching points the world has not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. In November, Russia officially pulled its ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty. In September, North Korea amended its constitution to include expanding its nuclear forces as a fundamental part of the state. While Iran’s uranium refinement program seems to be slowed, its diplomatic relations with Western powers, namely the United States, remain tense. China’s unprecedented nuclear stockpile build-up speed has defied the predicted growth rate from international experts, and DoD estimations released just this January. In response to the accelerated PRC build-up, a recently published U.S. Strategic Posture Commission report raises the alarm with recommendations for the government to overhaul the modernization program of its nuclear arsenal urgently. The findings of this report are echoed by policymakers who see the recommendations as a necessary step in preparation for a dual confrontation with the nuclear powers of Russia and China. If the nuclear-armed states continue to increase their nuclear arsenals under the guise of precautionary strategic posture improvements, the world will continue to maneuver rapidly into a highly distressing modern nuclear arms race.

The new trilateral hotline between South Korea, Japan, and the United States stands as an example that with efficient diplomatic cooperation, creating a multilateral hotline is not only a possibility but a reality that can be achieved. Research indicates that hotline communication can be one of the best tools for world leaders seeking peace on the cusp of conflict and crisis.

Effective crisis communications can fill the dangerous gap between a shared understanding and perceived threats growing among nuclear powers. The CATALINK concept aims to promote and provide open and secure multilateral communication channels. International agreement or solution can only be reached with the ability to talk to one another. The time to find diplomatic solutions and implement effective, secure communication channels is now.