SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - U.S. President Joe Biden is in Seoul, South Korea, the first leg of his six-day trip to South Korea and Japan, meeting the newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk Yeol to highlight the U.S.-South Korea alliance and efforts to engage the region economically.
Upon landing at the U.S. Air Force's Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, around 55 kilometers south of Seoul, Friday, Biden began immediately with a tour of the nearby Samsung Pyeongtaek Campus, the largest semiconductor plant in the world. The factory is a model for a $17 billion computer chip facility Samsung is building outside Austin, Texas.
In remarks following a tour of the plant showcasing the electronics company's new 3-nanometer chips, Biden called the U.S-South Korea alliance "a lynchpin of peace, stability, and prosperity." He and Yoon vowed to work together to strengthen supply chains of semiconductors and other critical components. There is currently a global shortage of chips - used in various electronic consumer goods and automobiles - aggravated by the pandemic.
Washington and Seoul are among each other's largest trading and investment partners, with more than $62 billion of foreign direct investment by South Korean firms in the United States as of 2020.
The two leaders are meeting again Saturday, on a wider range of issues, including North Korea and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The IPEF is the centerpiece of U.S. economic policy in the region since the Trump administration's 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration launched in 2016.
While Seoul is unlikely to downgrade economic ties with Beijing, its support for the IPEF, the administration's economic counteroffensive against China, is crucial.
"No one in Korea is talking about the economic isolation of China, that's really not going to happen," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist at King's College London told VOA. Yoon, though, will be "much more vocal in making clear that Korea is joining these frameworks that we all know are anti-China," he said.
The IPEF, scheduled to be launched Monday in Tokyo, has been criticized for its lack of market access provisions, making it less attractive than existing regional free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan pushed back against the criticism, saying IPEF will provide a "huge thrust and momentum" to U.S. economic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.
"This is going to be the new model of economic arrangement that will set the terms and rules of the road for trade and technology and supply chains for the 21st century," he told VOA.
North Korea weapons test
U.S. officials have warned that South Korea's belligerent northern neighbor may conduct another nuclear or missile test while Biden is in the region.
Bong Young-shik, a lecturer at Seoul's Yonsei University said North Korea may use a test to grab the "full attention" of Biden and Yoon, however it won't be the only focus. Yoon, who took office a little more than a week ago has signaled a tougher stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor.
"With or without another provocation by North Korea, the North Korean issue will be really high on the list of priority agendas for both leaders," he told VOA.
After confirming its first case of COVID-19 last week, North Korean state media Saturday reported about 220,000 new cases of an unidentified "fever" said 66 people had died.
Experts fear the number of cases is much higher and could be disastrous for a country suffering from food shortages and having poor medical infrastructure. Pyongyang has not inoculated its population and has turned down vaccine donation offers from the U.N. COVAX program. It is unlikely to change its stance, Bong said.
"By accepting external assistance, especially from South Korea and the United States, the principle of the infallibility of the supreme leadership will be greatly damaged," he said.
A senior administration official told reporters in a phone briefing that the U.S. is in discussions with China to look for ways to help North Korea as they deal with the outbreak.
China military flex
In Asia, Biden will reaffirm U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and use the Ukraine crisis to signal that unilateral change to the status quo by force - whether in Taiwan or the disputed islands in the South China Sea - is unacceptable.
However, there is little likelihood that Beijing might opportunistically move against Taiwan while the U.S. is focused on the Russian invasion, said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United State. The enormous economic pressures brought on by the zero-COVID policy has led to growing public skepticism about the Chinese leadership.
"Xi Jinping faces strong domestic headwinds, he can't face another failure," Daly told VOA.
Still Xi is flexing his military prowess. Ahead of Biden's arrival in Seoul Thursday, China announced it is holding military exercises in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has militarized at least three of several islands it artificially built in the strategic waters, an aggressive move that concerns the U.S. and its allies.