SEOUL, May 19 (UPI) — U.S. President Joe Biden kicks off a trip to South Korea and Japan on Friday, with North Korean provocations, an increasingly assertive China and stronger economic and defense ties with allies set to be high on the agenda.
The visit, Biden’s first to Asia as president, is a chance to show a commitment to the region after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated attention for the past few months. The administration has long been looking to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in order to counter what it calls a growing threat from China.
“President Biden has rallied the free world in defense of Ukraine and in opposition to Russian aggression,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a briefing on Wednesday. “But he also intends this pivotal moment to assert bold and confident American leadership in another vital region of the world, the Indo-Pacific.”
Biden will start the trip in Seoul, where he will meet with newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol under the shadow of a looming provocation from North Korea. South Korea and the United States have said the secretive regime shows signs of preparing for either a long-range missile or nuclear test in the coming days.
“We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” Sullivan said.
Yoon, who took office on May 10, campaigned on strengthening ties with Washington and taking a harder line against North Korea than his predecessor, the engagement-focused former President Moon Jae-in.
For Biden, one priority may simply be to get to know Yoon, the 61-year-old former chief prosecutor who has never held political office.
“A big part of this trip will be taking the measure of Yoon and seeing if he’s for real with everything he says,” said Sean King, senior vice president and an Asia expert with New York-based political consultancy Park Strategies.
“From an American point of view, [Yoon] is a dream,” King told UPI. “He’s going to be tough on China, tough on North Korea, he stands with Ukraine and talks about values and democracy. He says all this great stuff, but he has no political track record to look back at.”
Seoul, meanwhile, is seeking concrete reassurances from Washington for protection against North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats.
“One of the main aims for Seoul is the United States making an explicit declaration on the commitment of extended deterrence for South Korea,” Go Myong-Hyun, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told UPI. “It could be Biden expressing this verbally, but it could also be some sort of tangible move by the U.S. military.”
Go said Biden could announce a regular rotation of strategic assets, such as nuclear submarines, long-range bombers and aircraft carriers to South Korea.
Biden will also meet with technology and manufacturing leaders in South Korea, who are “mobilizing billions of dollars in investment here in the United States to create thousands of good-paying American jobs,” Sullivan said.
Biden plans to meet with U.S. and South Korean troops but he will not visit the Demilitarized Zone, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed Wednesday.
Another key point for Washington on the trip is the unveiling of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a U.S.-led initiative that is seen as an attempt to counter China’s regional influence.
The Yoon administration has announced it will sign on to the pact, which focuses on trade rules around supply chain resiliency, the digital economy and clean energy.
Beijing has criticized the initiative as divisive and earlier this week Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his South Korean counterpart Park Jin against joining, saying it could lead to a “decoupling” of the two countries’ economies.
Public details remain scarce, but IPEF will be officially launched by Biden in Tokyo, the White House announced.
In Japan, Biden will meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and will participate in a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue alongside the leaders of Japan, Australia and India before heading back to Washington on Tuesday.
“This trip is a way to get back on track with Asia, which was the administration’s top priority coming in,” King said.