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Biden, Yoon agree to boost military exercises

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Biden, Yoon agree to boost military exercises
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held a summit on Saturday and announced plans to expand joint military exercises and strengthen deterrence against growing North Korean threats. Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, May 21 (UPI) -- U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met on Saturday and said they will discuss ramping up joint military exercises in response to growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

The two leaders held a summit at Yoon's new presidential office in Seoul and turned their focus toward security concerns on the second day of Biden's visit to South Korea.

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Yoon and Biden will start talks "to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula," a joint statement said.

Washington and Seoul had scaled back their joint drills in recent years under the administrations of U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. North Korea has long slammed the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion.

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Saturday's joint statement also reaffirmed the United States' "extended deterrence" commitment to South Korea using the "full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities."

Biden's visit comes as Seoul and Washington are on high alert for a provocation from North Korea, which has conducted 16 missile launches this year and appears poised for its first nuclear weapon test since 2017.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that there is a "a genuine possibility, a real risk of some kind of provocation while we're in the region, whether in South Korea or in Japan."

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Yoon, a former chief prosecutor who took office less than two weeks ago, campaigned on taking a stronger stance against North Korea and has been seeking robust defense assurances from the United States.

"The key to our combined defense capability is the combined military exercises, and we are going to step up our exercises," Yoon said at a news conference after the summit.

He added that both administrations were in "lockstep coordination" on a North Korea policy that demands the regime give up its nuclear weapons.

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"[We] reiterated our common goal of the complete denuclearization of the DPRK," Yoon said. "There is no compromise for security under this shared belief." The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.

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At the same time, both leaders expressed a willingness to engage with North Korea diplomatically and offered humanitarian assistance as the isolated and unvaccinated country is suffering a COVID-19 outbreak.

Biden said the United States has offered to share vaccines with North Korea, which has announced almost 2.5 million cases of an unspecified fever believed to be connected to its first reported COVID-19 infections.

"We've offered vaccines, not only to North Korea, but to China as well," Biden said. "And we're prepared to do that immediately. We've gotten no response."

In a reply to a question about whether he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as his predecessor Trump did in a pair of high-profile summits, Biden said that it would "depend on whether [Kim] was sincere and whether it was serious."

Biden is making his first trip to Asia as president. The White House has been looking to strengthen alliances in the region as a means of countering the growing economic and military power of China, which the administration has framed as its primary global challenge going forward.

"I really do think we're at an inflection point in world history," Biden said. "This is going to be a competition between democracies and autocracies."

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The U.S. president said relations with South Korea are "closer than they've ever been" and praised Seoul's commitment to a larger role in regional security on issues including "stability across the Taiwan Strait as well as ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea."

Both items are sure to be sore spots for China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory and views Taiwan as a wayward province that it has vowed to re-take.

The two leaders also highlighted plans to secure supply chains and strengthen economic cooperation around crucial industries such as semiconductors. Biden made the first stop of his South Korea trip on Friday to a Samsung chip manufacturing plant, which is a model for a $17 billion facility the electronics giant is planning to build in Texas.

Yoon on Saturday formally announced South Korea's participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, a U.S.-led economic initiative that focuses on issues including supply chain resiliency, the digital economy and clean energy.

The pact, which Biden will officially unveil on his visit to Japan, is widely seen as an attempt to counter China's regional influence.

Earlier Saturday, Biden visited Seoul National Cemetery, where he paid tribute to soldiers who died in the 1950-53 Korean War. He will leave for Japan on Sunday after visiting an Air Force Operations center at Osan Air Base.

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