Seoul (CNN) — US President Joe Biden arrived in South Korea on Friday with a mission to reaffirm a key alliance at an uncertain time in East Asia.
Even as the war in Ukraine keeps Washington worried — and occupied the first half of Biden’s day before he left for Asia — North Korean provocations have intensified and China continues to flex its economic and military might.
Biden wants to show his major partners in the region that he can focus on both East and West, and that the United States has the resources to help defend democracy and sovereignty around the world.
The risks have been further increased by the threat of a nuclear or missile test from North Korea. The prospect hangs over Biden’s stop in Seoul, where he planned to tout economic partnership and security ties with the country’s newly elected president.
Possible North Korean missile test
US intelligence assesses that North Korea may now be preparing to refuel an intercontinental ballistic missile, one of the key final stages in preparing for a test launch, according to a US official familiar with the latest information. . A potential missile fuel load would mean North Korea could conduct a test launch while Biden is in South Korea. Once a missile is refueled, launch generally occurs quickly due to the risk of leaving a missile filled with thousands of pounds of fuel in a launcher.
Biden and his aides have prepared contingencies in case Pyongyang launches a long-range missile or conducts a seventh underground nuclear test, as US officials have warned. US officials have briefed their allies on the various possibilities. And if a test is held, Biden and his South Korean counterpart have made plans for how they would show a show of determination together.
“We know what we’re going to do to answer them. We’ve communicated not only with our allies, but also with China. And this could really make the United States stronger in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments in the way our military is positioned in the region,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden headed to Asia.
Such a scenario would only underscore the dire threat North Korea continues to pose to the region, even as the world’s — and Biden’s — attention has turned in recent months to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden left for Asia at midday Thursday after meeting with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House to discuss their emergency requests to join NATO, a reflection of how much of his schedule has been consumed by the crisis. The long transpacific trip, the longest of Biden’s presidency thus far, included a refueling stop in Alaska.
It is the first time Biden has gone to Asia since he took office a year and a half ago. Covid-19 and other foreign crises have kept him away so far, but the simmering problems of Chinese expansionism and North Korea’s posturing remain top concerns for his administration.
Biden’s first engagement upon arrival will be a tour of a Samsung semiconductor factory, where he will salute the strong trade and economic ties between the US and South Korea, particularly in advanced technologies. The Biden administration has worked in recent months to ease semiconductor shortages that have hit U.S. manufacturing, including cars and trucks, in part because shipments of some Chinese-made components stalled due to factory closures. Biden has made it a priority to separate US industry from the drawbacks of the Chinese supply chain, both through domestic production and by sourcing key parts outside of China.
on the schedule
Later in his trip, Biden plans to unveil a new Indo-Pacific economic plan detailing his business ambitions in the region. He faces deep skepticism after his predecessor withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge trade pact brokered in the Obama administration. Leaders question how durable Biden’s plan might be if Trump or another Republican takes office in 2025.
Biden will visit Japan after a three-day stopover in Seoul. The officials said their goal was to emphasize that the war in Ukraine had only strengthened the US position in Asia by demonstrating the strength of US alliances.
“President Biden has united the free world in defense of Ukraine and in opposition to Russian aggression. He remains focused on ensuring that our efforts in those missions are successful. But he also intends to use this moment, this pivotal moment, to affirm bold and confident American leadership in another vital region of the world: the Indo-Pacific,” Sullivan said Wednesday.
Still, the possibility of a provocative test from North Korea during Biden’s trip was a sign that his administration’s efforts to engage Pyongyang in diplomacy have so far yielded little. Biden advisers have tried unsuccessfully to restart talks with the North, with virtually no response available to them.
It won’t go to the DMZ
At the same time, the White House has almost completely ruled out direct talks between Biden and Kim Jong Un, the country’s dictator, who met with Biden’s predecessor three times, including on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (known as the DMZ). ).
Biden will not visit the DMZ on his trip, unlike several of his recent predecessors. White House advisers said they believed it was more important for the president to visit US troops stationed in South Korea during his visit.
But he was expected to discuss the North Korean situation when he meets for bilateral talks on Saturday with new South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl, including new steps to deter the unprecedented level of provocations.
Yoon, a former prosecutor who had never before held elective office, campaigned as a strong supporter of the alliance with the US and has signaled his intention to expand South Korea’s foreign policy commitments beyond just dealing with the US. North. That’s good news for Biden, who is looking to strengthen alliances in Asia while trying to counter China’s economic and territorial ambitions.
That has been a central facet of his foreign policy, but it has been somewhat obscured by the war in Ukraine. In South Korea, administration officials see a new leader eager to cooperate with Washington on a range of issues and an advanced economy that could supplant America’s current reliance on China for certain critical technologies.