Biden says ‘hello’ to N. Korea’s Kim despite weapons test fears

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President Joe Biden (centre) visits the Combat Operations Floor at the Osan Air Base in South Korea today. (AP pic)

Reuters

SEOUL: President Joe Biden had a short message for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: “Hello. Period.” he told reporters Sunday in Seoul, before heading to Japan for the second leg of his Asia trip which has been overshadowed by fears of a nuclear test by Pyongyang.

Biden is leaving South Korea, after spending two days with newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol, with the pair discussing possibly expanding joint military exercises to counter Kim’s sabre-rattling.

His goal to reinforce US leadership across Asia has been dogged by fears the unpredictable, nuclear-armed North could conduct a weapons test while Biden is in the region, but on his last day in Seoul, he told reporters he had a short message for Kim: “Hello. Period.”

He said he was “not concerned” about Pyongyang’s possible weapons test, saying: “We are prepared for anything North Korea does.”

Early Sunday, Biden met with the chairman of Hyundai to celebrate a decision by the auto giant to invest US$5.5 billion in an electric vehicle plant in the southern US state of Georgia.

He will also meet US and South Korean troops with Yoon, a schedule that a senior White House official said was able to “reflect the truly integrated nature” of the countries’ economic and military alliance.

Biden has used his visit to call for the democratic allies to deepen ties, saying at a joint press conference with Yoon that Asia was a key battleground in the global “competition between democracies and autocracies”.

“We talked in some length about the need for us to make this larger than just the US, Japan, and Korea, but the entire Pacific and the South Pacific and Indo-Pacific. I think this is an opportunity,” Biden said.

While China is the main US rival in that struggle, Biden illustrated the acute challenge from Russia when he signed a US$40 billion aid bill late Saturday to help Ukraine fight the invasion by Moscow’s forces.

The bill, passed earlier by Congress, was flown to Seoul so that Biden could make it law without having to wait for his return to Washington late next Tuesday.

In Japan, Biden will meet with prime minister Fumio Kishida and Emperor Naruhito on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s Quad summit, bringing together the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the US.

Also on Monday, Biden will unveil a major new US initiative for regional trade, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.

North Korea threat 

Biden and Yoon said in a statement Saturday that “considering the evolving threat” from North Korea, they “agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean peninsula”.

The possible beefing up of joint US-South Korean military exercises comes in response to North Korea’s blitz of sanctions-busting weapons tests this year.

Joint exercises had been scaled back due to Covid and in order for Biden and Yoon’s predecessors, Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, to embark on a round of high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful diplomacy with the North.

In contrast to the dovish Moon, Yoon said he and Biden discussed possible “joint drills to prepare for a nuclear attack” and called for more tactical US assets to be deployed to the region.

Any build-up of forces or expansion of US-South Korea joint military exercises would likely enrage Pyongyang, which views the joint drills as rehearsals for invasion.

Meanwhile, Biden and Yoon extended an offer of help to Pyongyang, which has recently announced it is in the midst of a Covid-19 outbreak – a rare admission of internal troubles.

The US-South Korea statement said the two presidents “express concern over the recent Covid-19 outbreak” and “are willing to work with the international community to provide assistance” to North Korea.

On Sunday, North Korean state media said 2.6 million people had been sick with “fever” with 67 deaths – which they claimed was a fatality rate of just 0.003%, despite an unvaccinated population where malnutrition is widespread.

Biden, while adding that he would not exclude a meeting with Kim if he were “sincere”, indicated the difficulty of dealing with the unpredictable dictator.

“We’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but to China as well and we’re prepared to do that immediately,” Biden said at a press conference with Yoon. “We’ve got no response.”