Biden Begins Asia Journey in South Korea, Under North Korea’s Nuclear Shadow

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea: US President Joe Biden arrived in South Korea on Friday, his first Asia trip as US leader, aiming to strengthen ties with regional security allies as concerns over a North Korean nuclear test mount .
Biden wants the trip to build on recent steps that accelerate a long-standing US pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undermining Washington’s dominance.
He will receive a warm welcome from South Korea’s new staunchly pro-US President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office last week, but there are growing concerns that North Korea’s unpredictable leadership could conduct a nuclear test during the Biden’s visit to the region.
Despite a rapidly growing Covid outbreak, Pyongyang’s “preparations for a nuclear test are complete and they are only looking for the right moment,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being informed by Seoul’s spy agency.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there is “a real risk of some sort of provocation while we are in the region”.
“We know what we will do to respond to them. We have communicated not only with our allies, but also with China,” he said.
Hawkish Yoon has pledged to take a strong stance with the North after years of failed diplomacy, and also wants stronger ties with the US, including stepping up joint military exercises.
Early on Friday, he told reporters in Seoul that Biden’s trip was an opportunity for the US-South Korea relationship to become “stronger and more inclusive.”
Biden leaves South Korea for Japan on Sunday. He will hold talks with the leaders of both countries and participate in a regional summit of the Quad – a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States – while in Tokyo.
“I am on my way to the Republic of Korea and Japan for my first trip to Asia as president,” Biden tweeted from Air Force One.
“I look forward to strengthening vital security alliances, deepening our economic partnerships and working with other democracies to shape the road rules for the 21st century.”
Biden’s first visit to Seoul indicates Washington wants to refocus on the Korean peninsula, Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now at the RAND Corporation, told AFP.
Both Seoul and Washington may want to “bridge the policy gap” and plan how the security allies can better coordinate “in light of current and emerging challenges in the region and beyond,” Soo Kim said.
If Kim tests a nuclear weapon during the visit, the US said its response will be coordinated with South Korea and Japan — and could include “adjustments to the way our military is deployed in the region,” Sullivan said.
The US has nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea – some of whom will visit Biden during the trip – and about 55,000 US military personnel in Japan.
The unintended effect of a nuclear test during the visit could be that Washington and Seoul move closer together, Soo Kim said.
“If Kim goes ahead with a test during Biden’s visit, he will effectively help the two countries find more justification for working together on the North Korea issue,” she added.
Sullivan also said a North Korean nuclear test would not be seen as a setback to Biden’s diplomacy.
“It would underscore one of the most important messages we are sending on this journey, which is that the United States is here for our allies and partners.”
Sullivan said ahead of the trip that Biden is heading to Asia with “tailwind” following successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s nearly three-month invasion of Ukraine.
The high military, diplomatic and economic costs imposed on Russia are seen in Washington as a warning to China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to take control of democratically ruled Taiwan, even if that means waging war .
Sullivan said the government does not want to confront China during the trip, but rather use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.
He pointed to the cooperation of South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia, led by European powers and the United States. He also referred to Britain’s role in the recently established AUKUS security partnership.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it is not a negative message and it is not targeted at any single country.”

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