SEOUL: US President Joe Biden and South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol signalled on Saturday an expanded military presence in response to the “threat” from North Korea, while also offering to help the isolated regime face a Covid-19 outbreak.
After meeting in Seoul on Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, the two leaders said in a statement that “considering the evolving threat posed by” North Korea, they “agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean peninsula”.
The possible beefing up of joint exercises comes in response to North Korea’s growing belligerance, with a blitz of sanctions-busting weapons tests this year as fears grow that Kim Jong Un will order a nuclear test while Biden is in Asia.
Biden and Yoon also extended an offer of help to Pyongyang, which has recently announced it is in the midst of a Covid-19 outbreak, a rare admission of internal troubles.
The US-South Korea statement said the two presidents “express concern over the recent Covid-19 outbreak” and “are willing to work with the international community to provide assistance” to North Korea to help fight the virus. On Saturday, North Korean state media reported nearly 2.5 million people had been sick with “fever” with 66 deaths as the country “intensified” its anti-epidemic campaign.
Biden, while adding that he would not exclude a meeting with Kim if he were “sincere”, indicated the difficulty of dealing with the unpredictable dictator.
“We’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but to China as well and we’re prepared to do that immediately,” Biden said at a press conference with Yoon. “We’ve got no response.” For his part, Yoon stressed that the offer of Covid aid was according to “humanitarian principles, separate from political and military issues”.
Elected on a strongly pro-US message, Yoon emphasised the need to reinforce South Korea’s defences.
According to Yoon, he and Biden “discussed whether we’d need to come up with various types of joint drills to prepare for a nuclear attack”.
Talks are also ongoing on ways to “coordinate with the US on the timely deployment of strategic assets when needed”, he said, reaffirming commitment to North Korea’s “complete denuclearization”.
The strategic assets should include “fighter jets and missiles in a departure from the past when we only thought about the nuclear umbrella for deterrence”, he said.
Any such deployments, or a ramping up of US-South Korea joint military exercises, is likely to enrage Pyongyang, which views the drills as rehearsals for invasion.
Biden began his day by paying respects at Seoul National Cemetery, where soldiers killed defending South Korea, including many who fought alongside US troops in the Korean War, are buried. He then held closed-door talks with Yoon ahead of the joint press conference and a state dinner.
A US official said that in addition to tensions over North Korea and the US-led campaign to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, Biden’s main focus Saturday was establishing “a strong personal relationship”
with Yoon, who is less than two weeks into his presidency.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2022