It is Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, and comes after he has been intensely focused on domestic issues including inflation, the pandemic, and the baby formula crisis – plus Russia’s war on Ukraine.
En route, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was asked what it would mean for Biden’s visit if North Korea conducts another ballistic missile or nuclear test while the president is here.
‘This could cause the United States only to increase our fortitude in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region,’ Sullivan responded.
Air Force One with U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, May 20, 2022. The president will tour a Samsung factory at the start of his first trip to Asia as president
‘As far as the trip is concerned, I think all it would do is underscore, it would underscore one of the main messages that we are sending on this trip, which is that the United States is here for our allies and partners. We are here to help provide deterrence and defense for the ROK and Japan. We will respond to any threats and any aggression decisively,’ he added.
North Korea has already conducted 15 ballistic missile tests this year, as well as seven nuclear tests.
South Korea’s spy agency has said North Korea has been making preparations for another test.
Sullivan warned Wednesday, before the start of the trip, that ‘Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both in the days leading into, on or after the president’s trip to the region.’
“We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,’ he added.
Whatever North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un’s plans, Biden plans to keep the focus on the alliance between the two large economies, and his own ambitions to confront inflation by taking on supply chain issues.
He will visit the mammoth Samsung Electronics Pyeongtaek Campus. The company has said it will invest billions in a Texas semiconductor facility. Biden will also pitch speedy passage of the Bipartisan Innovation Act, which is meant to boost domestic manufacturing and address supply chain problems.
He will be joined by the country’s new president, Yoon Suk Yeol.
Also there will be Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who had to get a court’s permission to take a break from his fraud trial that is underway.
It is certain that Russia’s war on Ukraine will come up, as Biden tries to keep allies unified in aiding Ukraine and trying to confront Russia through punitive sanctions.
Biden plans to sign the $40 billion Ukraine aid package, which passed the Senate shortly after he took off for his trip.
There are other domestic issues at play. He’s leaving just days before the pandemic-era expulsion policy known as Title 42 is set to expire. The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for scenarios where agents at the southwestern border are reckoning with as many as 18,000 migrants per day.
Meanwhile mothers and families nationwide are struggling with a baby formula shortage, as Democrats in Congress call on Biden to appoint a coordinator to deal with the crisis.
The president did not answer shouted questions from reporters on Thursday but smiled and waved in a show of confidence before his five-day trip.
Meanwhile, Biden is looking to reaffirm his administration’s commitment to allies and partners in the region who fear China’s increased aggression against Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said Wednesday that Biden ‘will not visit the DMZ’ while in South Korea, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which separates North and South Korea.
Biden visited the DMZ as vice president in 2013.
President Joe Biden left early Thursday afternoon for his first visit to Asia as commander-in-chief
He’ll visit South Korea and Japan in a five day-long visit until next Tuesday
Biden did not stop to answer reporters’ shouted questions but waved before boarding his plane
He’s leaving the United States just days before the pandemic-era Title 42 policy is lifted
More recently, former President Donald Trump went to the DMZ in June of 2019 and crossed into North Korea, meeting leader Kim Jong Un, a year after they first held talks in Singapore.
In February 2019, Trump walked away from denuclearization talks with Kim at a second summit in Vietnam.
Since Trump’s trio of Kim meetings, U.S. denuclearization talks with North Korea have stalled.
North Korea hasn’t tested a nuclear bomb since 2017, but resumed testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles earlier this year.
Earlier this month, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast, South Korea and Japan said.
North Korea, however, is reportedly suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (left) said Wednesday there’s a ‘genuine possibility’ that North Korea could conduct a nuclear or missile test while President Joe Biden is in the region, while press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (right) said Biden wouldn’t visit the DMZ
As of last week, then White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated a trip to the DMZ for Biden was still on the table.
Sullivan said as part of Biden’s first Asia trip, which kicks off Thursday, he would observe American and Korean troops.
‘On this trip, he’ll have the opportunity to reaffirm and reinforce two vital security alliances, to deepen two vibrant economic partnerships, to work with two fellow democracies to shape the rules of the road for the 21st century, and to thank his allies in Korea and Japan for their remarkable and in some ways unexpected contributions to the effort to support Ukraine and to hold Russia accountable,’ Sullivan said.
Biden’s first stop in Asia is to South Korea where he’ll meet with the country’s new leader, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated earlier this month.
Yoon won election, in part, because he said he’d take a tougher stance against North Korea.
The country’s previous president, Moon Jae-in, tried to promote a peaceful reconciliation between the two Koreas.
President Joe Biden (left), serving as vice president, visited the DMZ in 2013. He looked into North Korea with binoculars alongside granddaughter Finnegan Biden (right)
Yoon pledged that he would not ease sanctions on his northern neighbor until Kim made ‘active efforts in complete and verifiable denuclearization.’
In his inaugural address earlier this month, Yoon pushed an ‘audacious plan’ to boost North Korea’s economy in exchange for denuclearization.
Yoon is a first-time politician, spending his career as a prosecutor, which included leading high-profile probes into his predecessor Moon’s aides.
He beat liberal Lee Jae-myung in the country’s March election by narrow margins.
Beyond his bilateral meeting with Yoon, Biden will meet with technology and manufacturing leaders in Korea who are investing in the U.S. and producing American jobs.
Biden will then travel to Japan to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who’s been in that position since October.
The two leaders previously met on the sidelines of the G7 in March.
Former President Donald Trump (right) visited the DMZ in June of 2019 and was the first American leader to meet with a North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un (left), in the space between North and South Korea
‘We believe that the U.S.-Japan alliance at this moment under these two leaders is at an all-time high. This visit can take us even higher,’ Sullivan said.
Biden’s overtures to South Korea and Japan, two Asian democracies, are to provide a counter-balance to rising China, which has gotten cozier with North Korea since nuclear talks ended with the last U.S. administration in 2019.
After taking office last year, Biden’s first world leader at the White House was Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, with South Korea’s President Moon visiting a month later.
While in Tokyo, Biden will also participate in his second in-person meeting of the Quad, which includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia, another strategic alliance meant to keep China in check.
This will be the first time Kishida will participate, alongside Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Australia’s May 21 general election is complicating participation in the Quad meeting, as it will be held just three days before the Tokyo gathering is scheduled.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wouldn’t say on Wednesday who would represent Australia at the summit.
‘I believe that the Quad meeting will go ahead, I don’t have any more specifics than that,’ Jean-Pierre said at Wednesday’s briefing when asked about Australia’s participation.
Morrison is being challenged by Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese.
Also in Tokyo, the White House said Biden will release an ‘ambitious economic initiative for the region.’
First Lady Jill Biden beat her husband to Asia, traveling to Tokyo in July to appear at the summer Olympics.