Biden in Asia: US and South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea
The announcement reflects a change in direction by both leaders from their predecessors: Former US President Donald Trump had considered scrapping the drills and expressed affection for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And South Korea’s last president, Moon Jae-in, remained committed to dialogue with Kim until the end of his term, despite repeated rebuffs from the North.
Biden said the US-South Korea cooperation demonstrates “our willingness to address all threats together.”
North Korea, which has defended its nuclear weapons and missile development as a necessary deterrent against what it describes as US threats, may well have reacted angrily to Saturday’s announcement. Joint military exercises have long been described as rehearsals for an invasion, although the Allies portrayed the exercises as defensive.
In remarks at a joint press conference, Biden and Yoon reiterated that their common goal is the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The US and South Korea said in a joint statement that they were committed to a “rules-based international order” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement likely sets the stage for how the US and its allies will address any challenges with North Korea.
However, Biden also reiterated his offer of vaccines to North Korea as the coronavirus is spreading at a dangerously rapid rate in that country, including an offer to pipe them through China if that would be more acceptable to North Korea. When asked if he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un, Biden said it would depend on whether the North Korean leader was “sincere” and “serious.”
“Yes, we have offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but also to China,” Biden said. “We are ready to do that immediately. We have not received an answer.”
The division of the Korean peninsula after World War II has resulted in two radically different countries. In South Korea, Biden tours factories for computer chips and next-generation cars in a democracy and holds talks on closer cooperation. But in the North there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely unvaccinated autocracy that can best get the world’s attention by using its nuclear capabilities.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to South Korea, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the US had coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how to respond if the North launched a nuclear test or would launch a missile attack while Biden is in the region or shortly thereafter. Sullivan also spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week, urging Beijing to use its influence to persuade the North to halt testing.
As part of a five-day visit to Asia, Biden spent Saturday building his relationship with Yoon, who took office just over a week ago.
The US President laid a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery on Saturday, wearing white gloves and a somber expression as he also burned incense and then wrote in a guest book. Biden then welcomed Yoon to the People’s House for a nearly two-hour meeting, followed by the press conference. The Chairmen rounded off the day with a dinner at the National Museum of Korea.
Yoon greeted Biden with a toast, noting that the alliance “was forged in blood on the battlefield of the Korean War.” He said this partnership would go beyond security in Korea to include cutting-edge technology and a global strategic partnership, then made Biden laugh by quoting Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
Biden responded by toasting the alliance “to prosper for all the decades to come.” Both men ended their toasts with the military motto: “We go together”.
During the talks, both leaders emphasized economic security and growing trade ties as two Korean industrial companies — Samsung and Hyundai — open major factories in the US
Yoon, a political novice with no foreign policy experience, entered talks with Biden less than two weeks after taking office to demonstrate his competence on the world stage. The US President also spoke by phone with Moon Jae-in, the immediate former President of South Korea, on Saturday. Biden thanked him for his close partnership, the White House said.
Biden faces growing disapproval in the US over inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees a clear economic victory in its battle with China for influence in the Pacific. Bloomberg Economics Analysis estimates that the US economy will grow faster than China this year for the first time since 1976, a forecast Biden highlighted at the news conference.
The US has struggled to assemble a coalition of countries in Asia capable of offsetting China’s growing strength, abandoning the trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership after a domestic political backlash.
Biden dodged a question about reviving the deal but spoke about the potential for closer ties in the region beyond traditional allies like South Korea and Japan.
“Things have changed,” he said. “There is a feeling among the democracies of the Pacific that much closer cooperation is needed. Not only militarily, but also economically and politically.”
Biden didn’t specifically address the need to confront China in his remarks, but Beijing offered its own counter-message on Saturday.
“We hope that the US will walk the talk and work with countries in the region to promote solidarity and cooperation in Asia-Pacific, rather than planning division and confrontation,” said Chinese envoy for Korean affairs Liu Xiaoming , on twitter.
Early in the tenure, many White House officials thought that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove to be perhaps the administration’s most vexing challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s abilities early in his tenure.
For the first 14 months of the Biden administration, Pyongyang held back missile tests, despite ignoring government efforts to come forward through back channels in hopes of resuming talks leading to denuclearization of the North in return for sanctions lifting could.
But the calm didn’t last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 times this year, including in March when its first ICBM flight since 2017 showed potential range including the entire US mainland.
The Biden administration is urging China to block North Korea from participating in missile or nuclear tests. On Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping could have a phone call in the coming weeks.
While Biden has made it clear that he sees China as the United States’ biggest economic and national security competitor, he says it’s crucial to keep lines of communication open so the two powers can work together on issues of mutual interest. North Korea might be at the top of that list.
White House officials said Biden will not visit the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean Peninsula during the trip. Instead, on Sunday, Biden will visit the Combat Operations Floor at the Air Operations Center at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-Hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Chris Megerian and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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