Biden’s charm offensive seeks to strengthen ties with South Korea, Indo-Pacific region

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SEOUL — President Biden on Saturday held bilateral talks with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, speaking of the “shared sacrifice” that unites the two countries as he sought to bolster the United States’ influence in the Indo-Pacific region and blunt the threat from North Korea.

The two presidents agreed to expand combined military exercises with South Korea on and around the Korean Peninsula, which North Korea views as an act of hostility. But Biden also said he was open to meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if the leader of the hermit kingdom was “sincere” and “serious.”

“Our alliance is making important contributions to shape the future for our children,” Biden said of South Korea, “and to create a strong and dynamic economy that is a powerful example for the rest of the world.”

Biden is midway through a five-day trip to South Korea and Japan, an effort to bolster American influence in a part of the world where China’s power and North Korea’s nuclear aims loom large. Biden is using this trip to promote his vision for the U.S.’s role in the Indo-Pacific. Many Asian nations are still reeling from Trump’s “America First” years, and worry that Biden will abandon his promises.

Yoon, a former public prosecutor with no foreign policy experience, is the first subject of Biden’s charm offensive. Yoon, a former public prosecutor with no foreign policy experience, stated that he desired a closer relationship to the United States during his presidential campaign. Yoon is only in his second week of office, but Biden traveled across the Pacific to see him. This shows how deeply the United States regards its South Korean relationship and the potential to grow it. Biden and Yoon met with the South Korean delegations for several hours on Saturday.

“The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States has never been stronger, more vibrant or more vital,” Biden said.

Saturday’s bilateral meeting focused on the military threat posed by North Korea, but the leaders also discussed ways to position South Korea as a bigger player in the Indo-Pacific, both militarily and economically.

Later, Biden spoke with Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, thanking the former president for “his close partnership and commitment to the alliance,” according to the White House, and attended a state dinner. Biden laid a wreath in a South Korean cemetery as part of his official first event.

During the meeting, the presidents agreed to identify other areas to deter North Korean aggression, in addition to the military exercises. The two countries also agreed to expand their cooperation in combating state-sponsored cyberthreats by North Korea.

Since last year, Pyongyang has conducted a flurry of tests designed to diversify and expand its arsenal, as part of Kim’s five-year plan to develop weapons that are designed to evade existing missile defense systems.

Since U.S.-North Korea diplomatic talks collapsed in 2019, U.S. and South Korean negotiators have urged North Korea to return to negotiations, assuring the North that they have no preconditions. The Biden administration has yet to show it’s willing to give Kim the relief he seeks.

U.S.-led international sanctions and U.S.-South Korea joint military drills have fueled North Korea’s complaints that Washington has “hostile policies” toward Pyongyang. With Yoon and Biden vowing closer cooperation on North Korea, it seems that a diplomatic breakthrough is more possible than ever.

Intelligence officials say Kim is planning a new test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the continental United States. North Korea is showing signs of a potentially imminent nuclear test, which would be its seventh to date and first since 2017.

But the leaders sought to frame their interactions beyond the threat from the volatile country. The presidents visited a Samsung manufacturing facility for chip manufacturing and discussed strengthening economic relations between their countries. Biden wants to promote a key domestic priority: A bill that will increase the U.S.’s competitiveness with China. Senate and House negotiators have been scrambling for this bill to be finalized.

Biden is also confronting a swirl of other challenges during his first trip to Asia, which threaten to divert his — and the region’s — attention. U.S. intelligence thinks North Korea may conduct a ballistic or nuclear missile test in the midst of Biden’s trip. The North is also contending with a coronavirus surge suspected to have hit about 2 million people; the impoverished country has no vaccine program and a fragile health system.

Biden said that the United States has told North Korea that it will provide vaccines but has received no response. The spokesperson for the National Security Council stated that North Korea was offered vaccines by the United States through established channels like Covax. This global vaccination-sharing initiative is still in its early stages.

South Korea has announced plans to provide vaccines and medical aid to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not responded, Seoul said.

Economically, Biden is trying to sell Indo-Pacific leaders on a scaled-down version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one that involves similar partners but not the same tariff reductions or access to American markets as its predecessor. Biden faces a lot of criticism from the rest of the region, particularly among the countries that reluctantly signed the TPP in order to reduce trade barriers with the United States.

One objective for the United States is to get Yoon, a foreign policy novice, to stick with the agreements made by Moon. Last year, the two nations agreed to a framework which would allow them to expand their military alliance and include economic security.

Through it all, observers are watching to see how China reacts to the United States’ charm offensive toward a regional trading partner.

“Things have changed,” Biden said during the briefing. “There’s a sense among the democracies in the Pacific that there’s a need to cooperate much more closely, not just militarily, but also economically and politically.”

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