President Joe Biden on Saturday is dedicated to strengthening ties with South Korea and its new leader, Yoon Suk-yul, as the two sides consult on how best to verify the nuclear threat from North Korea at a time when there is no hope of real diplomacy on the matter.
The division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II led to two radically different states. In South Korea, Biden is touring factories for computer chips and the next generation of cars in a democracy and engaging in talks for greater cooperation. But in the North, there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely vulnerable autocracy that could better capture the world’s attention by flexing its nuclear capabilities.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden made his way to South Korea, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States has coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how to respond if North Korea conducts a nuclear test or missile attack while Biden does. in the area or a little later. Sullivan also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week, urging Beijing to use its influence to persuade North Korea to halt the tests.
“China should consider taking whatever steps it can to reduce the possibility of provocative action,” Sullivan said.
As part of a five-day visit to Asia, Biden on Saturday will focus on his relationship with Yoon, who took office just over a week ago. One task is to reassure South Korea about the US commitment to confronting Kim Jong-un in North Korea.
There is concern in Seoul that Washington is regressing to the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” to ignore North Korea until it shows seriousness about denuclearization, an approach that has been criticized for neglecting North Korea as it has made great strides in building up its nuclear arsenal.
The prospects for real nuclear diplomacy are slim as North Korea has ignored offers from South Korea and the United States to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, dampening hopes that such cooperation could help ease nuclear tensions or even lead to talks. However, Biden and Yoon are expected to discuss ways to work with the international community to obtain much-needed vaccines and tests in North Korea, according to senior Biden administration officials who told reporters.
Buy now | Our best subscription plan now has a special price
The US president opened Saturday by laying a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery, donning white gloves and a sombre expression while also burning incense and then signing a guest book. Then Biden greeted Yun in the People’s House for a private meeting. Later, the two will hold a joint press conference and attend the Leaders’ Dinner at the National Museum of Korea.
One of the focal points will certainly be the alarming but economically fragile North. However, both leaders are also keen to emphasize their growing business relationship as two Korean manufacturers – Samsung and Hyundai – open major plants in the US.
Biden faces growing rejection within the United States for inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees one clear economic victory in the competition with China. Bloomberg Economics estimates that the US economy will grow faster this year than China for the first time since 1976, a forecast that White House Press Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre attributed to Biden’s spending on coronavirus relief and infrastructure that led to faster job growth.
The national security event that spurred broader discussions between the two countries was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war that led to an unprecedented set of sanctions by the United States and its allies.
South Korea has joined the United States in imposing export controls against Russia and blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system. Its involvement was instrumental in stopping Russia’s access to computer chips and other technologies needed for weapons and economic development.
Early in the administration, many White House officials believed that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove to be perhaps the administration’s most vexing challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s strength early in his tenure.
During the first 14 months of the Biden administration, Pyongyang halted missile tests even as it ignored the administration’s efforts to communicate through back channels in hopes of resuming talks that would lead to North Korea’s denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief.
But the calm did not last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 separate times this year, including in March, when its first flight of an ICBM since 2017 demonstrated a potential range including the entire US mainland.
The Biden administration is calling on China to prevent North Korea from engaging in any missile or nuclear tests. Speaking on Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping may hold a phone call in the coming weeks.
Biden has been highly critical of Beijing for its human rights record, trade practices, military harassment of the self-governing island of Taiwan, and more. While Biden has made clear that he sees China as the largest competitor to the United States in terms of economy and national security, he says it is critical to keep the lines of communication open so that the two powers can cooperate on issues of mutual interest. North Korea is probably the highest on that list.
White House officials have said Biden will not visit the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula during his trip — something that has become a norm for presidents during visits to Seoul dating back to Ronald Reagan. Biden visited the DMZ in 2013 as Vice President. Sullivan said the president’s decision to skip the stop this time was not motivated by security concerns.
Instead, on Sunday Biden will visit the combat operations room at the Air Operations Center at Osan Air Force Base, south of Seoul. The United States considers it one of the most important installations in Northeast Asia.