If you want peace, prepare for war, the Romans said. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, and his new South Korean counterpart, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, affirm that they are willing to dialogue with a North Korea that this year has multiplied its missile tests and that could be preparing a nuclear test. But in the first tour of Biden’s term in Asia, they have also agreed to strengthen their “deterrent posture” against the North’s weapons program and have discussed the possible sending of more US military equipment to the South.
It was the first time that the veteran US head of state and the inexperienced South Korean president had met, lacking previous experience in politics and who has only been in office for 11 days after his electoral victory in March. Both had a priority ahead of them: to reconnect their two governments after the disagreements that marked the era of Donald Trump and the progressive Moon Jae-in in the last five years, and in the face of the common challenges represented by the arms activities of North Korea and the Chinese rise.
The two wanted to underline that reconnection -key for both allies in the region-, symbolized in the first act they shared on the day: a floral offering to the fallen Koreans and Americans in the Korean War (1950-53), in an allusion to shared history.
Much of that reconnection will focus on boosting economic and trade cooperation. The two presidents have visited a Samsung semiconductor plant together, and Biden is scheduled to appear on Sunday with the president of Hyundai, which will install a new electric vehicle factory in Savannah (Georgia, USA). Yoon has given his explicit support to the new US initiative for economic collaboration in the region, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). And both have highlighted the importance of protecting global supply chains, one of the axes of the White House tenant’s Asian journey.
The two share the same vision. “We are at a turning point in history, a competition between democracies and authoritarian regimes, not only in this region, but throughout the world,” Biden said at the press conference after the meeting between the two leaders. The US president has highlighted the support that both the new Yoon government and Japan – his next leg of his Asian tour, the first of his mandate – have given to kyiv in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yoon wants his country to have a more prominent role on the world diplomatic stage, in keeping with his economic weight – it is the tenth largest economy in the world – and his soft power cultural.
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Reconnection after disagreements with Trump
Despite these challenges, the great protagonist of the talks has been an increasingly aggressive North Korea in its weapons tests after abandoning this year the moratorium that was imposed in 2018 on the launch of long-distance missiles. Pyongyang is also the touchstone of this reconnection after the disagreements between Moon and Trump: the former White House tenant flirted with the idea of withdrawing US troops from the Korean peninsula. Secret services in Seoul and Washington believe that Kim Jong-un’s regime could fire a new intercontinental rocket in the coming days, and do not rule out a nuclear test. Since January, Pyongyang has already completed nearly 20 missile launches of various ranges.
In their meeting this Saturday, Biden said, he and Yoon discussed regional security issues, including “meeting the threat posed by North Korea by further strengthening our deterrent posture, and working toward a complete denuclearization of the peninsula.” ”. Both have agreed to increase the size of their joint military exercises and to send, if necessary, more US military equipment to the South. In a joint statement after the meeting, Washington reiterated its readiness to defend Seoul even with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Next to the stick, the carrot. The US president claims to have offered – like South Korea – immediate assistance to Pyongyang to fight a wave of covid that has already infected at least two of the 28 million inhabitants of North Korea. Unanswered so far, he has also nuanced. The Hermit Kingdom admits infections among some 200,000 people – the rest, up to two million, suffer from “fever”, according to the official version -, but has not distributed a single vaccine among its population. And the drugs it has to deal with the pandemic are very limited.
Biden maintains that he is willing to meet with the North Korean supreme leader himself, as his predecessor Trump did three times without achieving tangible progress in the North’s denuclearization process. But —he clarifies— he would not meet Kim unconditionally. “It would depend on him being sincere and serious” in the negotiations, he has stressed.
China, the shadow that hangs over Biden’s Asian tour, figured tangentially in the statements of the two leaders. The Asian giant is Seoul’s main trading partner, and Yoon is trying to develop a delicate diplomatic fabric that allows him to maintain good trade relations with Beijing, while also strengthening political and military ties with Washington. Xi Jinping’s government already played the card of its economic weight in the neighboring country five years ago, when the Executive of the then President Park Hye-myung deployed the US-made anti-missile system THAAD on South Korean soil, something that Beijing saw as a threat to its territory. China has imposed an informal boycott on products from the South for months.
But China, which had warned Seoul against joining the IPEF, remains vigilant. “We hope that the United States will act as it says and work together with countries in the region to promote solidarity and cooperation in Asia Pacific, instead of plotting division and confrontation,” Chinese envoy for Korean affairs Liu Xiaoming wrote. On twitter.