SEOUL – President Joe Biden and his new South Korean counterpart will look for ways to break a diplomatic stalemate with North Korea on Saturday, as they worry Kim Jong Un could strike through a new nuclear test.
Biden and Yoon Sook-eol will meet in Seoul for their first diplomatic engagement since the inauguration of the South Korean president 11 days ago. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is preparing to launch a nuclear or missile test, prompting a friendly encounter between allies and US intelligence.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters Saturday that the two leaders would discuss nuclear cooperation and that Washington was ready for diplomacy with North Korea.
“It is our wish that we find a way to a diplomatic approach,” the official said. “We have made it very clear that we are ready to talk to them, and without preconditions, and that we are ready to take action to address their domestic challenges, including Covid.”
But it was unclear how Biden and Eun would begin talks with North Korea, who have rejected Washington’s engagement efforts since Biden took office last year.
Eun has hinted at a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor and is expected to seek Biden’s help. Eun warned of an early strike if there were signs of an impending attack and promised to strengthen the southern resistance.
North Korea’s first recognized COVID-19 outbreak, described by U.S. officials as “quite serious,” could provide an opening.
“We are very concerned about the situation,” the official said. “We are very sensitive that they seem to be facing a very serious situation, and I think you have seen that we are ready to work with others in the international community in need of assistance.”
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.
This, in addition to a diplomatic inauguration, has raised the possibility of a humanitarian crisis or a deadly new cowardly form, health officials say.
Washington has denied sending the vaccine directly to the country, but could force Eun Biden to do so. North Korea has not received offers of COVID assistance from South Korea, the United States and international vaccine sharing agencies.
A North Korean weapons test could overtake Biden’s extensive travel focus on China, trade and other regional issues.
The main biden theme of the visit is to address China’s presence in the region, but being a top business partner of Beijing Seoul, South Korea may strike a cautious tone in public.
Biden plans to use the trip to invest in the United States by Korean companies, including a move by Hyundai Motor Group of South Korea to invest about $ 5.54 billion in building its first fully electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facilities in the United States. (Reporting by Trevor Honeycut and Eric Beach; Editing by Sandra Mailer and William Malard)