SEOUL – President Joe Biden and his new South Korean counterpart on Saturday agreed to expand the alliance to meet new regional and global challenges, as well as conduct larger military exercises and deploy more U.S. weapons if necessary to deter North Korea.
Biden and Eun Sook-eol say their countries’ decades-old alliance must not only deal with the North Korean threat, but also keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open” and protect the global supply chain.
The two leaders are meeting in Seoul for their first diplomatic engagement since the inauguration of the South Korean president 11 days ago. Friendly encounters between allies are clouded by intelligence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to conduct a nuclear or missile test.
Eun further assured that the United States would increase its resistance to the North Korean threat. In a joint statement, Biden reiterated the US commitment to protect South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Both sides agreed to consider expanding their joint military exercises, which have been postponed in recent years in an effort to reduce tensions with the North, the statement said.
The United States has promised to deploy “strategic assets” – usually including long-range bombers, missile submarines or aircraft carriers – to intercept North Korea if necessary.
Biden told a joint news conference after their meeting that he would like to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if he is interested in serious talks. He said Washington had offered the Covid-19 vaccine to North Korea and China.
Eun also offered to help North Korea fight its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak, but Pyongyang has not yet responded.
North Korea reported more than 200,000 new cases of fever on Saturday for the fifth day in a row, but the country has little access to vaccines or modern treatments for the disease.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance, which dates back to the 1950-1953 Korean War, needs to be further developed to keep the Indo-Pacific “free and open,” Biden said.
He said the alliance was formed on the basis of opposition to border changes by force – a clear reference to Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s claim to Taiwan.
Calling for cooperation in electric batteries and semiconductors, Eun said changes in international trade and supply chains have provided new impetus for the two countries to deepen their ties.
Biden used the trip to invest in the United States by Korean companies, including a ের 5.5 billion investment by the South Korean Hyundai Motor Group to build its first dedicated electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in the United States.
The two leaders visited a giant Samsung semiconductor plant on Friday, where Biden said countries like the United States and South Korea, which share a “value-sharing” economy, need to cooperate more to protect economic and national security.
Eun said the concept of economic security would include cooperation in the event of a push in the foreign exchange market.
The South Korean president, keen to play a bigger role in regional issues, is expected to make his country one of the founding members of Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will be announced during a trip to determine labor standards, the environment and the supply chain.
However, as China is South Korea’s top trading partner, it could strike a cautious tone in public about its explicit response to Beijing. He said on Friday that South Korea’s accession to the IPEF did not constitute a dispute over economic relations between the two countries.
While White House officials have sought to downplay any clear message about dealing with China, it is a theme of Biden’s visit and has caught Beijing’s eye.
“Jack Sullivan has stated that the purpose of Biden’s visit to Asia is not to confront China,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Korea, said on Twitter, referring to Biden’s national security adviser.
“We hope that the United States will live up to its word and work with countries in the Asia-Pacific region for solidarity and cooperation, without conspiring for division and conflict.” (Reporting by Trevor Hunikat, Hyunhi Shin, Jack Kim, Eric Beach and Josh Smith; Editing by William Mallard and Bradley Parrett)