SEOUL – President Joe Biden and his new South Korean counterpart agreed on Saturday to hold larger military exercises to deter North Korea and deploy more U.S. weapons if necessary, with a proposal to send a COVID-19 vaccine and meet with potential Kim Jong Un.
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. Encounters between the allies were clouded by intelligence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was 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 COVID-19 and the North.
The United States has promised to deploy “strategic resources” – usually including long-range bombers, missile submarines or aircraft carriers – to intercept North Korea if necessary, according to the statement.
Both leaders said they were committed to North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and were open to diplomacy with Pyongyang.
“Whether I meet with the North Korean leader will depend on whether he is sincere or not,” Biden told a joint news conference.
He said Washington had offered the COVID-19 vaccine to China and North Korea, which is fighting its first recognized outbreak. “We have no response,” Biden said.
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.
The joint statement called for maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
When asked by reporters about Beijing’s possible reaction, Kim Sung-han, the UN’s national security adviser, said the issues were directly linked to South Korea’s national interest because its ships use routes.
“So I think there will be very little room for Chinese retaliation or misunderstanding,” he said.
Calling for cooperation in electric batteries and semiconductors, Eun said changes in international trade and supply chains have provided new impetus for the United States and South Korea 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 Samsung semiconductor plant on Friday, where Biden said countries such as the United States and South Korea, which share a “value”, 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, said his country would join Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which would be announced during a visit to determine labor, environment and supply chain standards.
China is South Korea’s top trading partner, and UN allies have insisted that neither the joint statement nor the IPF explicitly excludes any country.
Although White House officials have tried to downplay any clear message about dealing with China, it is a theme of Biden’s visit and it has caught Beijing’s eye.
Chinese Ambassador to Korea Liu Xiaoming said on Twitter, “We hope that the United States will live up to its word and work for solidarity and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, without conspiring for division and conflict.” (Reporting by Trevor Honeycutt, Hyunhi Shin, Jack Kim, Eric Beach and Josh Smith; Editing by William Mallard and Mike Harrison)