Biden and Yoon signal stronger military stance against North Korean threat

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US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have signaled a stronger military posture amid a series of recent North Korean missile launches and a potential nuclear test.

“Today, President Yoon and I pledged to strengthen our close engagement and work together to address regional security challenges, including countering the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by further strengthening our posture of deterrence and working towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Biden said Saturday at a joint press conference in Seoul, on the first leg of his six-day trip to South Korea and Japan. .

“President Biden has affirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and to substantial widespread deterrence,” Yoon said through an interpreter. Extended deterrence is a term that indicates that the United States will use its full range of military capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense, to defend its allies.

According to a joint statement issued after the summit, the leaders agreed to begin discussions “to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula” and pledged to ” identify new or additional measures to enhance deterrence” amid North Korea’s “destabilizing activities”.

Military exercises between allies have been scaled back during the pandemic and as part of efforts to engage North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by previous administrations of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in.

Still, North Korea is pushing ahead with its weapons programs, with 16 missile tests this year, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in more than four years in March. US officials have warned that Pyongyang could conduct additional missile tests or even nuclear tests while Biden is in Asia.

North Korean outbreak

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the People’s House on May 21, 2022, in Seoul.

The two leaders expressed concern over the current COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea and said they were willing to work with the international community to help Pyongyang fight the virus.

After confirming its first case of COVID-19 last week, North Korean state media reported about 220,000 new cases of unidentified “fever” on Saturday and said 66 people had died.

Experts fear the number of cases is much higher and the outbreak could be disastrous for a country with food shortages and poor medical infrastructure. Pyongyang has failed to vaccinate its population and has refused offers to donate vaccines from the UN COVAX program.

The offer of help is unlikely to be accepted, said Bong Young-shik, a senior lecturer at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“By accepting outside help, especially from South Korea and the United States, the principle of infallibility of the supreme leadership will be greatly damaged,” he told VOA.

A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that the United States was in talks with China to explore ways to help North Korea deal with the outbreak.

Supply chain strengthening

Upon landing at the US Air Force’s Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, about 55 kilometers south of Seoul, on Friday, Biden immediately began with a tour of nearby Samsung’s Pyeongtaek campus, the world’s largest factory. semiconductors in the world. The factory is a model for a $17 billion computer chip facility that Samsung is building outside Austin, Texas.

In remarks following a tour of the factory showcasing the electronics company’s new 3-nanometer chips, Biden called the U.S.-Korea alliance “a key to peace, stability and prosperity.” He and Yoon pledged to work together to strengthen supply chains for semiconductors and other critical components. There is currently a global shortage of chips – used in various consumer electronics and automobiles – made worse by the pandemic.

Washington and Seoul are one of each other’s largest trade and investment partners, with more than $62 billion in foreign direct investment by South Korean companies in the United States in 2020.

During their meeting on Saturday, the leaders discussed a wider range of issues including the Indo-Pacific economic framework.

The IPEF – due to launch in Tokyo on Monday – has been the centerpiece of US economic policy in the region since the Trump administration’s 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement that the Obama administration launched in 2016.

While Seoul is unlikely to downgrade its economic ties with Beijing, its support for IPEF, the administration’s economic counteroffensive against China, is crucial.

“Nobody in Korea is talking about China’s economic isolation, it’s really not going to happen,” Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea scholar at King’s College London, told VOA. Yoon, however, will be “much more vocal in making it clear that Korea is joining these cadres who we all know are anti-China,” he said.

It is still unclear whether Seoul will sign the IPEF. The leaders’ statement only said that the two agreed “to work together to develop a comprehensive IPEF that will deepen economic engagement on priority issues.”

The IPEF has been criticized for its lack of market access provisions, which makes it less attractive than existing regional free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Even without the promise of increased market access, administration officials said they expect a significant number of countries to sign on.

“I think you are going to see a really impressive display of energy and enthusiasm from a significant number of Indo-Pacific countries for the launch of the Indo-Pacific economic framework,” the adviser told White House national security, Jake Sullivan. to a question from VOA.

“It will be a large and comprehensive set of countries from across the region, a mix of different types of economies. And that diversity and breadth of participation, in our view, actually justifies the core theory of IPEF, which is — you’re right — that it’s not a traditional free trade agreement. And this is a good thing. It is a modern negotiation designed to meet modern challenges.

“We believe this event on Monday will be a big deal and a milestone in American engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” Sullivan said. “And at the end of the president’s first term, I think we’ll look back and say that was a time when American engagement in the Indo-Pacific kicked into a different gear.”

Chinese military flex

In Asia, Biden will reaffirm the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and use the Ukraine crisis to signal that unilaterally changing the status quo by force – whether in Taiwan or the islands disputed areas of the South China Sea – is unacceptable.

However, Beijing is unlikely to act opportunistically against Taiwan as the US focuses on the Russian invasion, said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. . The enormous economic pressures caused by the zero-COVID policy have led to growing public skepticism of China’s leaders.

(Chinese leader) “Xi Jinping is facing strong domestic headwinds, he can’t face another setback,” Daly told VOA.

Yet Xi is flexing his military prowess. Ahead of Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Thursday, China announced it was holding military exercises in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has militarized at least three of the many islands it has artificially built in strategic waters, an aggressive move that worries the United States and its allies.

Yoon will host Biden for a state dinner later on Saturday. On Sunday, Biden will meet with South Korean business leaders before continuing his trip to Tokyo.

William Gallo contributed to this report

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