US, South Korea could expand military exercises as deterrence to North Korea, leaders announce

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The United States and South Korea are considering expanding military exercises in and around the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea's progressing missile and nuclear program, the two countries announced Saturday.

President Joe Biden also said he could meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under certain conditions.

"That would depend on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious," Biden said at a joint news conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Yoon took office less than two weeks ago after a closely contested March election in which he vowed to bolster South Korea's defenses against North Korea.

Speaking through an interpreter, Yoon said combined military exercises are "key to our combined defense capability" and "we are going to step up our exercises."

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The formal joint statement released by the leaders was less definitive. It said the leaders agreed "to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula."

Their summit, the earliest an American president has visited South Korea after an election,  was an opportunity for Biden and Yoon to develop a personal relationship. That will help Yoon meet another campaign promise of deepening the alliance between the two countries and assist Biden's goal of building a coalition in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's rising influence.

Yoon said he and Biden "see eye-to-eye on so many fronts."

Biden said the alliance between the countries has never been stronger or more vital.

"Even more importantly, we've gotten a chance to get to know one another personally. We shared a lot of stories from our early beginnings," Biden said with a chuckle during a state dinner. "I think maybe we told each other too much. I don't know."

Biden said during a dinner toast that "revitalizing" the alliance with South Korea was one of his "key foreign policy priorities" when he took office last year. The U.S. leader also praised South Korea for demonstrating that democracy has the "power to be able to deliver for its people."

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"Our armed forces stand side by side, standing sentinel on a peninsula for seven decades to preserve the peace and make possible that shared prosperity," Biden added.

Guests of the affair, which took place at the National Museum of Korea, dined on sous-vide beef ribs and sautéed vegetables, pine mushroom porridge, water kimchi and dumplings wrapped in cabbage and other South Korean dishes.

Biden also spoke on Saturday to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in – one of the first foreign leaders to visit him at the White House as president. The pair did not meet in person in Seoul, the White House said.

The White House said that Biden also signed bills that would send Ukraine an additional $40 billion in aid and expand low-income families' access to baby formula.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (L) and US President Joe Biden hold a meeting at the People's House in Seoul on May 21, 2022.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (L) and US President Joe Biden hold a meeting at the People's House in Seoul on May 21, 2022.

'Blazing new trails together'

Biden throughout his trip has made a point of stressing the economic cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea, saying Saturday that their businesses are "blazing new trails together." Samsung and Hyundai are opening major plants in the U.S.

But the unpredictability of North Korea, which is facing a COVID-19 disaster, cast a menacing shadow over Biden's five-day visit to Asia, which started on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has test-launched multiple missiles in recent months, including nuclear-capable missiles potentially able to reach South Korea, Japan or the U.S.

Since Biden took office, the administration hasn’t been able to open the lines of communication with Kim .

Biden, on Saturday, reiterated his offer to provide COVID-19 vaccines to North Korea.

"We're prepared to do that immediately," he said. "We've gotten no response."

Although former President Donald Trump met in person with Kim three times, the unprecedented summits never produced a concrete agreement. North Korea continued to build up its nuclear and conventional weapons program during Trump's four years in office.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, greets President Joe Biden prior to their summit at the People's House in Seoul on Saturday, May 21, 2022.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, greets President Joe Biden prior to their summit at the People's House in Seoul on Saturday, May 21, 2022.

North Korea could conduct a missile or nuclear test  while Biden is in Asia, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.

"North Korea has a long history – going back decades, at this point – of missile tests, both to advance their capabilities and to cause provocations," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Thursday as Biden was en route to Asia. "We know what we will do to respond to that."

Nearly 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the Korean peninsula. Trump proposed the "complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea," according to former Defense secretary Mark Esper. Trump wanted the troops gone unless South Korea increased its share of the cost, former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his 2020 memoir.

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Since 1991, the U.S. has had only conventional weapons at its military installations in South Korea. But it maintains the threat of an in-kind retaliation against North Korea through its “nuclear umbrella.”

President Joe Biden participates in a wreath laying ceremony in honor of those who died in the Korean War at the National Cemetery in Seoul on May 21, 2022.
President Joe Biden participates in a wreath laying ceremony in honor of those who died in the Korean War at the National Cemetery in Seoul on May 21, 2022.

Before meeting with Yoon,  Biden participated in a wreath laying ceremony at Seoul National Cemetery to pay his respects to fallen soldiers, many of whom died fighting alongside U.S. forces in the Korean War. At the altar of the Memorial Tower, which enshrines tablets documenting soldiers who died during the war but whose bodies were never found, Biden sprinkled three pinches of ash from incense into an urn on a red carpet.

"Our alliances between our countries is built upon shared sacrifice," Biden later told Yoon.

When Yoon's predecessor, Moon, visited Washington, D.C., last year, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden in South Korea: Two nations could expand military exercises

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