SEOUL – The leaders of South Korea and the United States have agreed to expand military drills and deploy more US strategic assets to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, while at the same time expressing concern over an exploding Covid-19 pandemic in the regime.
American President Joe Biden said Saturday (May 21) that the US has already offered vaccines to North Korea and “we’re prepared to do that immediately”.
But “we’ve got no response”, he said at a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol.
South Korea has also offered to send vaccines across the border, but North Korean officials did not respond to attempts by the South to initiate working-level talks.
North Korea on Saturday reported nearly 220,000 new cases of fever, bringing the total to 2.46 million. With limited testing capability, assessing the scale of the Covid-19 outbreak is difficult, experts have said.
Both US and South Korean officials had warned that Pyongyang might launch a major provocation - such as a nuclear or missile test - while Mr Biden is visiting Asia.
Nuclear and missile negotiations have stalled since 2019 when talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump held in Hanoi broke down due to differences over sanctions relief and denuclearisation steps.
President Yoon said the door for dialogue remains open.
“If North Korea embarks on substantial denuclearisation, we will prepare an audacious plan to improve North Korea’s economy and the quality of life for North Korean people in cooperation with the international community,” he said.
He added that Seoul is willing to provide Covid-19-related assistance “from the perspective of humanitarianism and human rights, separately from political and military perspectives”.
Asked if he was willing to meet Mr Kim, Mr Biden said it depends on whether Mr Kim “was sincere and whether he was serious”.
In March, North Korea broke a self-imposed moratorium by firing its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile after a four-year break. The regime has tested missiles 16 times so far this year.
In a joint statement, Mr Yoon and Mr Biden underscored the importance of a trilateral cooperation with Japan to respond to North Korea’s nuclear threat, as well as to protect shared security and prosperity, uphold common values and bolster the rules-based international order.
The two leaders also jointly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and affirmed they will “ensure the effective implementation of their country’s respective measures to deter further Russian aggression and maintain our commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
They also agreed to strengthen mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and reaffirmed their “strong support for Asean centrality”.
In a move aimed at curbing China’s growing clout in supply chains, the two presidents also agreed to deepen cooperation in economic security and build secure and resilient global supply chains.
Mr Yoon formally announced that South Korea would participate in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a US-led initiative aimed at building a supply chain with regional partners, excluding China.
“We will continue our cooperation in strategic industries, such as microchips and EV
batteries, in order to expand mutual investment and to attain our common goal, which is building a resilient supply chain,” he said.
Mr Biden also welcomed Mr Yoon’s interest in Quad - a strategic grouping aimed at countering China. The US President is set to hold a Quad summit in Tokyo next Tuesday (May 24).
The White House, however, has insisted that Mr Biden’s trip – his first to Asia as President – is not aimed at confronting China.
Chinese envoy for Korean affairs Liu Xiaoming said on Twitter: “We hope that the US will match its words with deeds and work with countries in the region to promote solidarity and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, instead of plotting division and confrontation.”
Ewha Womans University’s associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley said the Biden-Yoon summit, which came just 11 days after Mr Yoon’s inauguration, “marks a new chapter for the global US-South Korea alliance that does more in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
“Simply holding the summit is a political victory for President Yoon because this is the earliest meeting for a newly-elected South Korean leader,” he said. “It is strategic for Seoul to strengthen ties with Washington before dealing with China and to improve relations with Japan before making major moves on North Korea.”