South Korea’s Biden and Yoon promise to deter North Korea but offer COVID aid

SEOUL, May 21 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and his new South Korean counterpart agreed on Saturday to hold larger military exercises and deploy more U.S. weapons if needed to deter North Korea, while offering to send vaccines against COVID-19 and possibly to meet Kim Jong UN.

Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol said their countries’ decades-old alliance needed to grow not only to deal with North Korean threats, but also to keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open” and protect the global supply chains.

The two leaders are meeting in Seoul for their first diplomatic engagement since the South Korean president’s inauguration 11 days ago. The friendly meeting between allies was clouded by intelligence showing that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to carry out nuclear or missile tests.

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Yoon had asked for more assurances that the United States would strengthen its deterrence against North Korean threats. In a joint statement, Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to defending South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary.

The two sides agreed to consider expanding their combined military exercises, which had been scaled back in recent years in a bid to reduce tensions with the North.

The United States also promised to deploy “strategic assets” – which typically include long-range bombers, missile submarines or aircraft carriers – if needed to deter North Korea, the statement said.

Both leaders said they were determined to denuclearize North Korea and open to diplomacy with Pyongyang.

“As to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea, it would depend on his sincerity and his seriousness,” Biden said at a joint press conference.

He said Washington has offered COVID-19 vaccines to China and North Korea, which are battling its first recognized outbreak. “We don’t have an answer,” Biden said.

North Korea reported more than 200,000 new fever patients on Saturday for a fifth consecutive day, but the country has few vaccines or modern treatments for the pandemic. Read more

EXPANDING ALLIANCE

The U.S.-South Korea alliance, which dates back to the 1950-1953 Korean War, still needs to grow to keep the Indo-Pacific “free and open”, Biden said.

He said the alliance was built on opposition to changing borders by force – an apparent reference to Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s claims on Taiwan.

Changes in international trade and supply chains have given new impetus to the two countries to deepen their relationship, Yoon said, calling for cooperation on electric batteries and semiconductors.

Biden used the visit to tout investments in the United States by Korean companies, including a decision by South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group to invest about $5.5 billion to build its first vehicle manufacturing facilities and of all-electric batteries in the United States. Read more

The two leaders toured a massive Samsung semiconductor factory on Friday, where Biden said countries like the United States and South Korea that “share values” needed to cooperate more to protect economic and national security.

Yoon said the concept of economic security will include cooperation in the event of shocks in the foreign exchange market.

The South Korean president, eager to play a bigger role in regional issues, said his country would join Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will be announced during the trip to set standards on labor, environment and supply chains.

But, given that China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner, he has struck a cautious tone in public on the subject of explicitly fighting Beijing. He said on Friday that South Korea’s membership in IPEF should not conflict with the countries’ economic ties.

Although White House officials have sought to downplay any explicit message of countering China, it is a theme of Biden’s trip and one that has caught Beijing’s attention.

“We hope the United States will match words with deeds and work with countries in the region to promote Asia-Pacific solidarity and cooperation, instead of plotting division and confrontation,” the envoy said. Chinese for Korean Affairs Liu Xiaoming on Twitter.

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Hyonhee Shin, Jack Kim, Eric Beech and Josh Smith; Editing by William Mallard

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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