President Joe Biden will use this week’s celebratory state visit by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to underscore that the United States is ready to step up its efforts to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea, according to the White House.
Biden will announce specific new nuclear deterrence efforts as well as a new cybersecurity initiative, economic investments, and an educational partnership, part of an effort to highlight the breadth and depth of the two countries’ relationship as they mark the 70th anniversary of their alliance, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
White House officials say Biden hopes to put a particular emphasis on the United States’ “iron clad” commitment to deterring nuclear action by North Korea as Pyongyang has stepped up ballistic missile tests, including flight-testing a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time earlier this month. The recent test is seen as a possible breakthrough in the North’s efforts to acquire a more powerful, harder-to-detect weapon targeting the continental United States.
Sullivan didn’t offer details on the new deterrence efforts ahead of the leaders’ announcement, but said that the U.S. is looking to send a clear message to Pyongyang about its increasingly aggressive rhetoric.
“What I will say is that we believe that the statement will send a very clear and demonstrable signal of the United States’ credibility when it comes to its extended deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea and to the people of Korea,” Sullivan said, using the formal name for South Korea.
As North Korea expands its nuclear weapons capability, concern is rising in South Korea about the strength of United States’ so-called nuclear umbrella. That had led to calls in South Korea for Washington to give Seoul more say in the nuclear deterrent offered by the alliance, with some Korean experts advocating for nuclear-sharing or even the development of South Korea’s own nuclear arsenal.
Biden also hopes to use the visit, which begins Tuesday, to underscore the importance of South Korea and Japan building on their security ties.
Biden has sought opportunities to help the historic rivals improve their long, fraught relationship as the Indo-Pacific region becomes increasingly complicated. He held trilateral meetings with Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio that largely focused on the North Korea threat on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia last November and at the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022.
Last month, South Korea announced a plan to compensate Koreans who performed forced labor during Tokyo’s colonial rule that doesn’t require Japanese companies to contribute to the reparations.
Biden hailed the step as a “groundbreaking new chapter” in cooperation between the countries. Yoon followed up by visiting Tokyo later in March for talks with Kishida. It was the first summit between the two nations’ leaders in Japan since 2011.
Sullivan said Biden also plans to highlight Yoon’s “determination and courage” in rapprochement with Japan during the visit.
Ahead of the Yoon visit, the United States, South Korea, and Japan conducted a joint missile defense exercise last week aimed at countering North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.
Experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to pressure the United States into accepting North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power and hopes to negotiate an easing of sanctions from a position of strength.
The United States and South Korea conducted their biggest field exercises in years in March and have also held separate naval and aerial drills involving a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.
South Korean officials said that the two leaders would discuss human rights concerns in North Korea. Experts believe the food situation in North Korea is the worst it has been under Kim’s 11-year rule, but they still say they see no signs of imminent famine or mass deaths. Kim vowed to strengthen state control over agriculture and take a spate of other steps to increase grain production, according to North Korean state media.
Meanwhile, the White House recently declassified and released intelligence findings that show that Russia is looking again to North Korea for weapons to fuel the war in Ukraine in a deal that would provide Pyongyang with needed food and other commodities in return. The White House previously said North Korea had provided the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company, with arms to help bolster its forces as they fight side-by-side with Russian troops in Ukraine.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin in a virtual speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said there is a “dire human rights situation on the ground” and urged the international community to work together “to ease the anguish of ordinary North Korean people.”
As part of his visit to Washington, Yoon is scheduled on Tuesday to tour NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with Vice President Kamala Harris. The South Korean president will visit the Korean War Memorial with Biden and First Lady Jill Biden on Tuesday evening. The two leaders and aides will hold formal talks and a joint news conference on Wednesday before Yoon is honored with the state dinner.
Yoon is to deliver a speech to the U.S. Congress on Thursday before traveling to Massachusetts where he is scheduled to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Biden has spent considerable time getting to know and consulting with Yoon since he took office.
The Democratic administration has also been full of praise for Yoon’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. South Korea has provided Ukraine with about $230 million in non-lethal assistance since Russia’s invasion more than 14 months ago.
The visit also follows just weeks after scores of highly classified documents were leaked, which have complicated relations with allies, including South Korea. The papers viewed by The Associated Press indicate that South Korea’s National Security Council “grappled” with the United States in early March over an American request to provide artillery ammunition to Ukraine.
The documents, which cited a signals intelligence report, said then-NSC Director Kim Sung-han suggested the possibility of selling the 330,000 rounds of 155 mm munitions to Poland, since getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the United States’ ultimate goal.
Seoul has also been supportive of U.S.-led sanctions and export controls targeting Russia since the start of the war. And South Korea has announced plans to invest more than $100 billion in the U.S. since the start of Biden administration, including a new Samsung advanced semiconductor factory in Texas and a Hyundai electrical vehicle plant in Georgia.
Yoon in an interview with Reuters last week said that Seoul could potentially extend its support for Ukraine beyond humanitarian and economic aid if that eastern European nation were to face large-scale civilian attack by Russia.
“The summit will also celebrate what we’ve been able to do under President Yoon’s leadership since he took over,” Sullivan said. “The ROK is stepping up around the world.”
Yoon is the second ally to be honored by Biden with a state visit. French President Emmanuel Macron was honored with a state visit in December.