The United States and South Korea are considering expanding military exercises in and around the Korean peninsula in response to progress on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, the two countries announced on Saturday.
President Joe Biden also said he might meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under certain conditions.
“That would depend on whether he was sincere and serious,” Biden said at a joint news conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Yoon took office less than two weeks ago after closely contested March elections in which he promised to bolster South Korea’s defenses against North Korea.
Speaking through an interpreter, Yoon said the combined military exercises are “key to our combined defense capability” and “we are going to intensify our exercises.”
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The formal joint statement issued by the leaders was less definitive. He said the leaders agreed to “start discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training in and around the Korean peninsula.”
Their summit, the first that an American president has visited South Korea after an election, was an opportunity for Biden and Yoon to develop a personal relationship. That will help Yoon deliver on another campaign promise to deepen the alliance between the two countries and help Biden’s goal of building an Indo-Pacific coalition to counter China’s growing influence.
Yoon said that he and Biden “agree on many fronts.”
Biden said the alliance between the countries has never been stronger or more vital.
“Even more importantly, we have had the opportunity to meet personally. We share many stories of our beginnings,” Biden said with a smile during a state dinner. “I think maybe we told each other too much. I don’t know.”
Biden said during a dinner toast that “reinvigorating” the alliance with South Korea was one of his “key foreign policy priorities” when he took office last year. The US leader also praised South Korea for showing that democracy has the “power to be able to meet its people.”
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“Our military stands side by side, sentinels on a peninsula for seven decades to preserve peace and make shared prosperity possible,” Biden added.
Guests at the event, which was held at the National Museum of Korea, dined on sautéed beef ribs and stir-fried vegetables, pine mushroom porridge, water kimchi and cabbage-wrapped dumplings and other South Korean dishes.
Biden also spoke Saturday with former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, one of the first foreign leaders to visit him at the White House as president. The couple did not meet in person in Seoul, the White House said.
The White House said Biden also signed bills that would send Ukraine an additional $40 billion in aid and expand low-income families’ access to baby formula.
‘Breaking new ground together’
Biden throughout his journey has taken pains to emphasize economic cooperation between the US and South Korea, saying on Saturday that their businesses are “breaking new ground together.” Samsung and Hyundai are opening major plants in the US.
But the unpredictability of North Korea, facing a COVID-19 disaster, cast a looming shadow over Biden’s five-day visit to Asia, which began on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has launched several test missiles in recent months, including nuclear-capable missiles potentially capable of reaching South Korea, Japan or the US.
Since Biden took office, the administration has been unable to open the lines of communication with Kim.
Biden on Saturday reiterated his offer to provide COVID-19 vaccines to North Korea.
“We are prepared to do it immediately,” he said. “We have not received a response.”
Although former President Donald Trump met with Kim three times in person, the unprecedented summits never produced a concrete deal. North Korea continued to develop its nuclear and conventional weapons program during Trump’s four years in office.
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North Korea could conduct a missile or nuclear test while Biden is in Asia, according to US intelligence assessments.
“North Korea has a long history, going back decades, right now, of missile tests, both to enhance their capabilities and to provoke provocations,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Thursday as Biden He was headed to Asia. “We know what we will do to respond to that.”
About 29,000 US troops are stationed on the Korean peninsula. Trump proposed the “complete withdrawal of US forces from South Korea,” according to former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Trump wanted the troops gone unless South Korea increased its share of the cost, former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his 2020 memoir.
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Since 1991, the United States has only had conventional weapons at its military installations in South Korea. But it maintains the threat of in-kind retaliation against North Korea through its “nuclear umbrella.”
Before meeting with Yoon, Biden participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Seoul National Cemetery to pay his respects to fallen soldiers, many of whom died fighting alongside US forces in the Korean War. At the altar of the Memorial Tower, which houses tablets documenting soldiers who died during the war but whose bodies were never found, Biden sprinkled three pinches of frankincense ash in an urn on a red carpet.
“Our alliances between our countries are based on shared sacrifice,” Biden later told Yoon.
When Yoon’s predecessor, Moon, visited Washington, DC, last year, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.