SEOUL—President Biden expressed openness to meeting
if the North Korean leader was sincere in his intentions, even as the U.S. and South Korea signaled plans for a stronger deterrence against Pyongyang’s accelerating weapons program.
In a joint statement after a Saturday meeting here with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Mr. Biden said the two nations would begin discussions to expand joint military exercises as North Korea steps up missile launches and satellite images suggest preparations for its seventh nuclear test after a five-year break.
Mr. Biden, in a press conference, said the allies would address the threat from North Korea “by further strengthening our deterrence posture and working toward a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The U.S. president and the South Korean leader held talks just 11 days after Mr. Yoon took office. Their discussions came as North Korea is reeling from a widening Covid-19 outbreak, which threatens the country’s unvaccinated citizens.
Mr. Biden said he was willing to provide vaccines to North Korea, but the country hadn’t responded to an offer. The U.S. was prepared to provide vaccines immediately, he said.
A White House official clarified later Saturday that the U.S. would provide the vaccines through existing mechanisms like Covax, a program financed mostly by Western governments to help lower-income countries obtain vaccines. The administration had made North Korea aware of the offer as recently as last week, the official said, adding that the U.S. had also offered to provide vaccines to China that could then be transferred to North Korea.
North Korea reported on Saturday around 220,000 new daily cases of people with fever, bringing the total to 2.46 million—almost 10% of the population—since the first cases were reported early last week. Pyongyang hasn’t said whether the people have been tested for Covid but has described the spread of fever as a nationwide outbreak of Covid.
North Korea has previously rebuffed offers of Covid vaccines from Covax. The country has also not responded to South Korea’s recent offer to provide supplies, including vaccines, in light of the outbreak. But it has received medical supplies from China.
Asked on Saturday whether he would have any preconditions for meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Biden told reporters: “That would depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious.”
White House officials have previously played down the likelihood of a meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Kim as the North Korean leader has stepped up his country’s missile tests. Mr. Kim met three times with former President
Mr. Biden’s predecessor, but those meetings didn’t push Mr. Kim closer to denuclearization, with Pyongyang expanding its nuclear-weapons program during the latter half of Mr. Trump’s term.
North Korea has conducted more than a dozen missile tests this year, including a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile launch in March and a submarine-launched ballistic missile earlier this month. Pyongyang most recently launched three ballistic missiles on May 12. The country has also conducted six nuclear tests, most recently in 2017.
U.S. officials have warned of the possibility that North Korea could conduct another nuclear or long-range ballistic missile test this month, perhaps even while Mr. Biden is in the region. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said this week that either test would prompt the U.S. to ramp up efforts to defend its allies and “cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region.”
President Joe Biden, who visited the National Cemetery in Seoul on Saturday, is scheduled to travel to Tokyo on Sunday.
Mr. Biden is making his first trip to Asia as president, a visit meant to build upon U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan at a time when the focus of the Biden administration, and its European allies, has been trained on the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr. Biden is joining Mr. Yoon for a state dinner Saturday, alongside top Korean business executives. The White House said Saturday that Mr. Biden spoke with former South Korean President
-in and thanked him for his partnership. On Sunday, the U.S. president will travel to Tokyo, where he will meet with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India, who along with the U.S. make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.
The U.S. is planning to use the swing through Japan to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an economic pact that would allow the U.S. to work more closely with key Asian economies on issues including supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anticorruption.
One of the overarching goals of the trip is to reinforce U.S. alliances in the region in order to counter the influence of China.
U.S. officials are divided over how and whether to lift tariffs on some of the roughly $360 billion annually of Chinese imports. The president’s advisers are weighing what impact, if any, lifting the tariffs, which were put in place during the Trump administration, would have on record inflation in the U.S. Another consideration: whether lifting tariffs opens the president up to criticism that he isn’t being tough enough on Beijing.
—Alastair Gale contributed to this article.
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