SEOUL — President Joe Biden on Saturday showcased a very different approach to the Korean Peninsula from his predecessor’s, vowing to consider expanding joint military exercises with South Korea and taking a more jaundiced view of the prospect of direct talks with North Korea’s leader.
In his first meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol, Biden sought to put the relationship with South Korea, traditionally one of the U.S.’ strongest allies in Asia, on a firmer foundation after the volatile years of former President Donald Trump, who frequently undercut ties with the South while wooing the North’s mercurial dictator, Kim Jong Un.
“The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States has never been stronger, more vibrant or, I might add, more vital,” said Biden, using South Korea’s formal name, at a news conference in Seoul with Yoon, who was inaugurated 11 days ago.
Unlike Trump, Biden hailed the continuing U.S. troop presence in South Korea. “It’s emblematic of our strength and our continuing strength and the durability of our alliance and our readiness to take on all threats,” he said.
As for dealing with the nuclear-armed North, Biden was cautious and skeptical. He said the United States had already offered vaccines to North Korea to help it cope with what has been reported to be a devastating coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve gotten no response,” he said.
“With regard to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea,” he added, “that would depend on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious.”
The president’s approach contrasted sharply with that of Trump, who during his four-year term veered wildly from threatening the North with “fire and fury” to falling “in love” with Kim.
In the end, the two leaders met three times. They reached no lasting agreement, but as part of his courtship, Trump agreed to suspend major joint military exercises with South Korea that had long irritated North Korean leaders, without first warning either Seoul or the Pentagon.
Trump also questioned why the United States still maintained a force of 28,500 troops in the country seven decades after the Korean War, leaving the Seoul government of that time uncertain about the U.S. commitment to the alliance.
Despite Trump’s suspension of the high-profile military drills, smaller-scale joint exercises with the South Korean military continued during his term. In a joint statement Saturday, Biden and Yoon agreed to start “discussions to expand the scope and scale” of the military exercises.
Biden said that cooperation between the United States and South Korea showed “our readiness to take on all threats together.” He also said that his administration would collaborate to confront cyberattacks from North Korea.
Biden’s team is focused, through engaging with allies in the region, on returning to a North Korea strategy aimed at deterrence. It views the Trump administration’s approach, in which Trump ignored the usual diplomatic process and directly embraced Kim, as an aberration in U.S. foreign policy.
Biden is open to meeting with Kim in the future, but he wants to return to the more traditional protocol in which his lower-level diplomats engage with the North before he becomes involved, according to a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity Saturday to explain the president’s thinking.
“It looks to me that the U.S. has defaulted to a posture remarkably similar to the Obama ‘strategic patience’ policy,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to South Korea. “And they’re getting the same result: no negotiations, more tests and not even lip service by Pyongyang to the goal of denuclearization.” That said, he added, “even if there were negotiations, it’s unlikely they would make any progress.”
But Biden has also said that his administration wanted a relationship with South Korea to expand beyond just a security partnership. The day before their bilateral meeting, the president and Yoon met at a Samsung semiconductor factory to commit to addressing global supply chain issues that have contributed to soaring inflation in the United States.
Before their joint news conference Saturday, the two delegations met for several hours; Yoon’s staff members were overheard discussing with Biden aides, including his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, the history of Korean-U.S. relations and of previous meetings with other allies in the region, among them the Japanese delegation that Biden will meet with Monday.
After meeting one-on-one with Yoon, Biden said that the two nations would continue to combat climate change and the pandemic and would keep working to ensure that “the Indo-Pacific is a free and open area.” Biden’s team has previously criticized China’s aggression in the South China Sea.
But despite the attempts to broaden the relationship, the threat from Pyongyang resonated throughout the second day of Biden’s tour in Asia.
“The two presidents share the view that the DPRK’s nuclear program presents a grave threat not only to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, but also the rest of Asia and the world,” the two leaders said in a joint statement, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official title.
Yoon, who came to office promising a tougher approach to North Korea, expressed satisfaction with Biden’s stance. “President Biden and I see eye to eye on so many fronts,” Yoon said.
The new South Korean president did not rule out talks with Kim, and like his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, he offered the prospect of economic assistance for the North. But Yoon made it clear that the North would have to give up its nuclear weapons, which it has been manifestly unwilling to do. Indeed, in recent days, U.S. intelligence officials have warned that North Korea might test a missile or a nuclear weapon during Biden’s trip to reassert itself internationally.
“The door to dialogue remains open,” Yoon said. “If North Korea genuinely embarks upon denuclearization in partnership with the international community, I am prepared to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen its economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”
The meeting between Biden and Yoon also underscored the degree to which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now hovers over all of Biden’s diplomacy.
“The war against Ukraine isn’t just a matter for Europe,” Biden said. “It’s an attack on democracy and the core international principles of sovereignty, and the Republic of Korea and the United States are standing together as part of a global response with our allies and partners around the world.”
The two leaders also discussed further economic cooperation at a time when the United States is struggling to secure supply chains, and they foreshadowed the formal introduction Monday of a regional economic framework meant to coordinate policies on supply chains, digital trade, infrastructure, clean energy and other areas.
After a state dinner in Seoul on Saturday night, Biden will fly to Japan on Sunday for meetings with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He is also expected to meet there with the leaders of India and Australia.