US President Joe Biden and South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol signalled Saturday an expanded military presence in response to the “threat” from North Korea, while also offering to help the isolated regime face a Covid-19 outbreak.
After meeting in Seoul on Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, the two leaders said in a statement that “considering the evolving threat posed by” North Korea, they “agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean peninsula”.
The possible beefing up of joint exercises comes in response to North Korea’s growing belligerance, with a blitz of sanctions-busting weapons tests this year as fears grow that Kim Jong Un will order a nuclear test while Biden is in Asia.
Biden and Yoon also extended an offer of help to Pyongyang, which has recently announced it is in the midst of a Covid-19 outbreak, a rare admission of internal troubles.
The US-South Korea statement said the two presidents “express concern over the recent Covid-19 outbreak” and “are willing to work with the international community to provide assistance” to North Korea to help fight the virus.
On Saturday, North Korean state media reported nearly 2.5 million people had been sick with “fever” with 66 deaths as the country “intensified” its anti-epidemic campaign.
Biden, while adding that he would not exclude a meeting with Kim if he were “sincere”, indicated the difficulty of dealing with the unpredictable dictator.
“We’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but to China as well and we’re prepared to do that immediately,” Biden said at a press conference with Yoon. “We’ve got no response.”
For his part, Yoon stressed that the offer of Covid aid was according to “humanitarian principles, separate from political and military issues”.
Elected on a strongly pro-US message, Yoon emphasised the need to reinforce South Korea’s defences.
According to Yoon, he and Biden “discussed whether we’d need to come up with various types of joint drills to prepare for a nuclear attack”.
Talks are also ongoing on ways to “coordinate with the US on the timely deployment of strategic assets when needed”, he said, reaffirming commitment to North Korea’s “complete denuclearization”.
The strategic assets should include “fighter jets and missiles in a departure from the past when we only thought about the nuclear umbrella for deterrence”, he said.
Any such deployments, or a ramping up of US-South Korea joint military exercises, is likely to enrage Pyongyang, which views the drills as rehearsals for invasion.
Biden-Yoon ‘personal relationship’
Biden began his day by paying respects at Seoul National Cemetery, where soldiers killed defending South Korea, including many who fought alongside US troops in the Korean War, are buried.
He then held closed-door talks with Yoon ahead of the joint press conference and a state dinner.
A US official said that in addition to tensions over North Korea and the US-led campaign to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, Biden’s main focus Saturday was establishing “a strong personal relationship” with Yoon, who is less than two weeks into his presidency.
Like Japan, where Biden flies on Sunday, South Korea is seen as a key player in US strategy to contain China and maintain what Washington calls the “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Biden’s Asia trip “is about demonstrating unity and resolve and strengthening the coordination between our closest allies”, a senior US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
In Japan, Biden will meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the emperor.
On Monday, he will unveil a major new US initiative for regional trade, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. A day later, he will join a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
On arrival Friday in South Korea, Biden accompanied Yoon on a tour of a massive Samsung semiconductor factory.
The microchips are a vital component in almost every piece of sophisticated modern technology, and South Korea and the United States need to work to “keep our supply chains resilient, reliable and secure”, Biden said.
For the US leader, whose Democratic Party fears a possible trouncing in midterm elections in November, snarled supply chains are an acute domestic political challenge, with Americans increasingly frustrated over rising prices and setbacks in the post-Covid pandemic recovery.
Biden emphasised Samsung’s decision to build a new semiconductor plant in Texas, opening in 2024.
In the southern US state of Georgia, the governor on Friday announced that South Korean auto giant Hyundai will build a $5.5 billion plant to produce electric vehicles and batteries.