President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart agreed in talks Saturday to begin discussions on restarting and potentially expanding joint military drills that had been halted under Biden’s predecessor – a step likely to draw fury from North Korea as it intensifies its provocations.
The move was a signal Biden was looking to break from President Donald Trump’s positions in Asia, where leaders were often left confounded by threats to withdraw US military support. Biden has used his first visit as President to the continent to reaffirm American commitment to the region, even as his focus has been pulled away by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In a joint statement, Biden and his counterpart, President Yoon Suk Yeol, wrote they would explore expanding “the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula.”
Such exercises used to occur regularly, a show of military muscle as North Korea was developing its nuclear program and building ever-more-powerful missiles.
But Trump moved to end the large-scale military exercises, surprising even some of his own military officials by saying the drills were too costly and potentially too provocative as he sought to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. He was successful in meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un three times, but the hermit nation did not move to abandon its nuclear program.
Speaking Saturday, Biden declined to say whether he would be willing to meet with Kim, indicating only that such an encounter would depend on how genuine the despot’s intentions were.
“That would depend on whether he’s sincere and whether he’s serious,” Biden said, adding the US had offered Covid-19 vaccines to Pyongyang as it endures a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak but had not received a response.
The moves announced during Biden’s first full day in Asia were likely to draw an angry response from North Korea, even as they were meant to provide reassurance to US allies of the continued American imperative of upholding security in the region. Already, US officials had been bracing for South Korea’s belligerent northern neighbor to thrust itself into the conversation with a nuclear or missile test.
Both leaders affirmed in a joint press conference they were seeking the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and pledged to cooperate on confronting the North. Biden said he was committed to “further strengthening our deterrence posture.”
North Korea’s intensifying provocations had been expected to be at the center of Biden’s talks with South Korea’s new President, who took office a little more than a week ago and has signaled a tougher stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor.
Yet Biden also hoped to use the occasion of a new leader in Seoul to expand the US alliance with South Korea beyond just a security partnership defined by the North. Officials said in their first meeting, the US President was hoping to cultivate a willing economic partner who can also help advance collective security goals in the broader Asia-Pacific.
In their joint statement, the leaders reiterated the importance of “preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” rebutting China’s territorial advances and signaling a potential shift from South Korea, which maintains deep trade ties with Beijing. It was an indicator of Yoon’s more expansive vision of foreign policy and a welcome sign for Washington.
Both men hailed the importance of building more resilient supply chains separate from China and pledged greater cooperation on advanced technologies, like the microchips Biden observed being made when he visited a Samsung plant upon arriving in Asia on Friday.
“Our alliance between our countries is built upon shared sacrifice and a joint commitment to the freedom of the Republic of Korea and our firm opposition to changing borders by force,” Biden said during a portion of his talks that were opened to reporters.
“Today, with this visit, we’re taking the cooperation between our two countries to new heights,” Biden said.
Biden has long placed a premium on developing interpersonal ties with his foreign counterparts, and officials said he was looking to develop a strong relationship with Yoon. The two men met privately for a lengthy stretch before joining their delegations.
“We settled everything,” Biden joked after. Yoon said they had “engaged in a candid conversation building friendship and trust.”
Biden hopes to reassure his hosts in Seoul and Tokyo he remains committed to two of the most important US alliances, even as his attention has been consumed by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
US allies in Asia, as they do around the world, have looked to Biden to reaffirm traditional alliances as regional tensions boil over. But like elsewhere, questions linger about how durable Biden’s promises on security and trade can be, given Trump appears to be waiting in the wings for a third presidential run.
In Asia, the threat from North Korea has been put into stark relief as US officials warn the country could be preparing its seventh underground nuclear test or a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The tests by dictator Kim Jong Un would insert North Korea squarely back into the global conversation after months of intensifying provocations. And it would underscore the stalled diplomacy between the United States and Pyongyang, despite attempts by Biden administration officials to restart talks.
US officials say they have prepared contingencies should a test occur.
Yoon, a former prosecutor who has never before held elective office, has signaled a tougher stance on North Korea, even as he looks to expand Seoul’s foreign policy beyond just dealing with its problematic northern neighbor. He campaigned as a staunch supporter of the US alliance, and has said he wants to see it strengthened, including on the economic front.
That is welcome news for Biden, who believes a strong network of allies in Asia can help counter China’s military and economic ambitions – just as a revived NATO alliance has isolated Russia for its invasion in Ukraine through packages of withering sanctions.
But just like in Europe, where dependence on Russian oil and gas has limited the effect of sanctions, a US reliance on China-made products poses concerns should Beijing’s military ambitions escalate further.
That was Biden’s message Friday while touring a Samsung factory making semiconductors, which have been in short supply after some Chinese plants were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a short speech, Biden tied together the chip shortage with the war in Ukraine, saying the US and its allies must reduce their dependence on essential items from autocratic regimes.
“Putin’s brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine has further spotlighted the need to secure our critical supply chains so that our economy, our economic and our national security are not dependent on countries that don’t share our values,” Biden said.