US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North as Biden visits Seoul

US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said after meeting on Saturday they would consider expanding military exercises to deter the nuclear threat from North Korea at a time when there are little hope of genuine diplomacy in this matter.

Yoon claimed at a press conference that their common goal was the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The United States and South Korea issued a joint statement saying they are committed to a “rules-based international order” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement likely sets the stage for how the United States and its allies will meet any challenges with North Korea.

The statement could draw an angry reaction from North Korea, which had defended its development of nuclear weapons and missiles against what it perceives as US threats and has long described US-South military exercises. Koreans as invasion rehearsals, although the allies described the drills as defensive. .

Yet Biden also reiterated his offer of vaccines to North Korea as the coronavirus spreads at a dangerously fast rate in that country. He also said he was ready to meet Kim Jong-un provided 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 so immediately. We have received no response.”

Biden speaks with Yoon as they meet at the presidential office in Seoul on Saturday. (Jung Yeon-Je/Getty Images)

The division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II led to two radically different countries. In South Korea, Biden is visiting factories making computer chips and next-generation automobiles in a democracy and engaging in talks for greater cooperation. But in the North, there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely unvaccinated autocracy that can best capture the world’s attention by flexing its nuclear capabilities.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to South Korea, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States had coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how they would react if the North conducts a nuclear test or missile strike while Biden is in the region or soon after. Sullivan also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week and urged Beijing to use its influence to persuade the North to stop testing.

Economic security, trade also stressed

As part of a five-day visit to Asia, Biden spent Saturday developing his relationship with Yoon, who took office just over a week ago.

Ahead of the meeting, there were concerns in Seoul that Washington would revert to the Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ policy of ignoring North Korea until it gets serious about denuclearization , an approach that has been criticized for neglecting the North as it has made huge strides in building its nuclear arsenal.

The US president opened on Saturday by laying a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery, wearing white gloves and a gloomy expression as he also burned incense and then signed a guest book. Biden then hosted Yoon at the People’s House for a nearly two-hour meeting and brief public remarks. The couple were also scheduled to hold a joint press conference and attend a leaders’ dinner at the National Museum of Korea.

Biden pays a silent tribute at the Seoul National Cemetery on Saturday. Biden is in South Korea to cement ties with the country and its new leader, Yoon. (Chung Sung-Jun/Associated Press)

Besides North Korea, the two leaders have emphasized economic security and developing trade relations as two Korean industrial stalwarts – Samsung and Hyundai – open major factories in the United States.

Biden faces growing disapproval in the United States over inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees a clear economic victory in China’s race for influence in the Pacific. Bloomberg Economics Analysis estimates the U.S. economy will grow faster this year than China for the first time since 1976, a forecast White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre attributed to Biden’s spending for coronavirus relief and infrastructure that led to faster job growth.

The national security event galvanizing broader discussions between the two countries was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that led to an unprecedented series of sanctions by the United States and its allies.

South Korea has joined the United States in imposing export controls on Russia and blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system. His participation was essential in stopping Russia’s access to computer chips and other technologies needed for weaponry and economic development.

The North has stepped up missile tests

Early in the administration, many White House officials believed that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove perhaps the administration’s thorniest challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s mettle. at the start of his term.

In the first 14 months of the Biden administration, Pyongyang suspended missile testing, even as it ignored administration efforts to reach out through secondary channels in hopes of reinvigorating talks that could lead to the denuclearization of the North in exchange for sanctions relief.

But the calm did not last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 times this year, including in March, when its first intercontinental ballistic missile flight since 2017 demonstrated potential range including the entire continental United States.

Protesters shout during a rally to oppose Biden’s visit near the presidential office in Seoul on Saturday. The signs read: “Stop joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea.” (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

The Biden administration is calling on China to prevent North Korea from engaging in missile or nuclear tests. Speaking on Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping could hold a phone call in the coming weeks.

Biden has sharply criticized Beijing for its human rights record, business practices, military harassment of the self-governing island of Taiwan, and more. And while Biden has made it clear that he views China as America’s biggest economic and national security competitor, he says it’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open so the two powers can cooperate on matters of common interest. North Korea may be at the top of the list.

White House officials said Biden would not visit the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean peninsula during his trip – which has become the norm for presidents on visits to Seoul since Ronald Reagan. Biden visited the DMZ in 2013 as vice president. Sullivan said the president’s decision to skip the shutdown this time was not driven by safety concerns.

Instead, Biden will tour the combat operations floor of the Air Operations Center at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, on Sunday. The United States considers it one of the most critical facilities in Northeast Asia.