North Korea nuclear threat tops agenda for Biden-Yin meeting in South Korea

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© Reuters. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to U.S. President Joe Biden during a tour of a semiconductor factory at Samsung Electronics’ Pyeongtaek campus in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Trevor Hennicart

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and his new South Korean counterpart will look for a way to break the diplomatic deadlock with North Korea on Saturday, amid fears that Kim Jong Un could conduct a new nuclear test.

Biden and Yoon Se-yeol will hold their first diplomatic engagement in Seoul since 11 days before the South Korean president’s inauguration. Intelligence shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is preparing to conduct a nuclear or missile test, casting a shadow over a friendly encounter between allies.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters Saturday that the two leaders will discuss nuclear cooperation and that Washington remains ready to engage in diplomacy with North Korea.

“We’re very keen to find a way to do it diplomatically,” the official said. “We’ve made it very clear that we’re ready to talk to them, and there are no preconditions, and we’re also ready to take steps to address their domestic challenges, including COVID-19. .”

But it is unclear how Biden and Yoon will initiate negotiations with the North Koreans, who have resisted Washington’s efforts to engage since Biden took office last year.

Yoon has taken a tougher stance on North Korea than his predecessor and is expected to seek help from Biden. Yoon warned of pre-emptive strikes if there were signs of an imminent attack, vowing to strengthen the South’s deterrent capabilities.

North Korea’s first-acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak, which U.S. officials called “pretty severe”, could present an opportunity.

“We’re very concerned about the coronavirus situation,” the official said. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that they seem to be facing a fairly serious situation, and I think you’ve seen that we stand ready to work with others in the international community as needed. provide assistance.”

North Korea reported more than 200,000 new fever patients for the fifth day in a row on Saturday, but the country has few vaccines or modern treatments for the epidemic.

That raises the prospect of a diplomatic opening and the prospect of a humanitarian crisis or a more deadly new variant of COVID, health officials said.

Washington has said it has no plans to ship a vaccine directly to the country, but Yin could push Biden to do so. North Korea has yet to accept COVID help from South Korea, the U.S. and international vaccine-sharing agencies.

Focus on China

North Korea’s weapons tests could overshadow Biden’s broader focus on China, trade and other regional issues.

Biden will introduce an Indo-Pacific economic framework that excludes China, which he calls dictatorships, and calls for more cooperation with countries such as South Korea that “share our values.”

While White House officials have tried to downplay any overt anti-China message, it was the theme of Biden’s trip, which also caught Beijing’s attention.

“Jack Sullivan says Biden’s Asia trip is not aimed at confronting China,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s special envoy for North Korea, said on Twitter (NYSE: ), referring to Biden’s national security adviser.

“We hope the U.S. side will live up to its words and deeds, and work with countries in the region to promote unity and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, instead of plotting division and confrontation.”

Liu He called on the U.S. side to work together to build an “open and inclusive circle of friends” in the region instead of forming a “closed and exclusive group.”

“It should do more to contribute to the peace and development of the Asia-Pacific region, rather than creating turmoil and chaos in the region,” he said.

Yoon is keen on South Korea’s greater role on regional issues, and he is expected to be a founding member of Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will be announced during the visit to lay out labor, environment and supply chains.

But given that Beijing is Seoul’s largest trading partner, he is likely to be cautious in public about explicitly fighting back against China, saying on Friday that joining the framework would not have to conflict with the two countries’ economic ties.

Biden also plans to use the visit to promote investments by South Korean companies in the U.S., including South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group’s investment of about $5.54 billion to build its first purpose-built all-electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in the United States.

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