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Biden and Yoon discuss bombers, missiles and bigger deterrence

New South Korean leader vows to play active role toward rules-based Indo-Pacific

U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, hold a joint news conference in Seoul on May 21.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The leaders of South Korea and the U.S. agreed to align their strategies for the Indo-Pacific in their first summit on Saturday, with the new conservative administration in Seoul willing to play a bigger political and economic role in the region.

U.S. President Joe Biden's meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol comes just 11 days after the latter's inauguration. "I'm honored to be able to meet you so early in your tenure," Biden said at a joint news conference. "The alliance has never been stronger, more vibrant, or -- I might add -- more vital."

Right off the bat, the two reached an agreement to work together closely through Washington's new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, which will seek to strengthen supply chains among like-minded countries.

"The two presidents commit to cooperate closely through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, based on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusiveness," said a joint statement issued after the meeting.

Biden called the IPEF "an economic strategy for the entire Indo-Pacific," which will bolster collaboration on issues such as infrastructure, the digital economy, clean energy and a global minimum tax, as well as supply chains.

U.S. President Joe Biden, with no mask, attends a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl at Yoon's new office in Seoul on May 21.   © Reuters

When asked if the U.S. will rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly known as the TPP), Biden said the IPEF is "separate from and also semi-inclusive of what TPP was about."

Yoon said that joining the IPEF is South Korea's first step toward building a rules-based Indo-Pacific region along with the U.S. A launch event for the IPEF takes place in Tokyo on Monday.

The IPEF is part of a drive to boost economic security among Washington's allies. Biden visited Samsung Electronics' semiconductor plant in the city of Pyeongtaek on Friday as his first destination during his three days in the country.

On defense, Yoon said America's extended deterrence could go beyond the traditional nuclear umbrella.

"There could be many other aspects, including fighters, bombers and missiles," the South Korean leader said. "Regarding the timely deployment of such strategic assets, we did engage in discussions today, and going forward I believe that there will be more concrete discussions [between each other's national security teams]."

The joint statement noted that "both leaders agree to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula."

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer sits at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Yoon said he discussed with Biden the deployment of additional weapons to South Korea, including bombers.   © U.S. Air Force

The two countries refrained from holding large-scale military exercises during the previous U.S. administration of Donald Trump, as he sought engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea's former president, Moon Jae-in, was also keen to minimize joint military drills to avoid provoking the North.

Seoul also agreed to play a bigger role in regional geopolitics, with the joint statement reiterating the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. However, China was not mentioned by name in the document.

Instead, Biden and Yoon emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan in addressing common military and economic challenges.

"Both leaders underscore the importance of ... trilateral cooperation for responding to [North Korea's] challenges, protecting shared security and prosperity, upholding common values and bolstering the rules-based international order," the joint statement said.

A reporter asked if Biden had any preconditions for meeting North Korea's Kim or if the U.S. would provide COVID-19 vaccines to the country. Seeing Kim "would depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious," Biden said. He added that Washington had offered coronavirus vaccines to China and North Korea, which is combating its first acknowledged outbreak. "We've got no response," he said.

Analysts say Biden's visit has been win-win for him and his South Korean counterpart.

"Yoon received reaffirmation of U.S. extended deterrence commitments, with bilateral plans for further nuclear policy consultations and upgraded defense exercises. Biden received South Korea's expanded commitments on supply chain security and support for the international order," said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"That will involve coordinating investments in technology, raising standards for economic rules in the Indo-Pacific, and intensifying the robust international response against Russia's invasion of Ukraine," he continued.

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