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Biden begins a 5-day trip to Asia with a stop in South Korea

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Economic security, North Korea's nuclear program, China's growing dominance in the region. These are just some of the things that will be top of the agenda when President Biden speaks with South Korea's president for the first time. President Biden will go on to Japan this weekend. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So South Korea's president took office less than two weeks ago. And he promised closer ties with the U.S. Explain the significance of that.

KUHN: Well, the two governments always talk about their ironclad alliance in this new president. Yoon Suk Yeol, has emphasized. The two countries' shared democratic values. But under the past South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in, there were some feelings here in Seoul that Washington was not doing enough to get North Korea back to the nuclear negotiating table. And some officials in Washington felt that Seoul was being too timid about criticizing North Korea and China. And recently, China has warned South Korea, do not join the U.S. in any anti-China coalitions. And since he took office, President Yoon has been careful not to ruffle feathers in Beijing. So I think observers will be watching to see whether he swings decisively towards either Beijing or Washington on this trip.

MARTIN: North Korea is in the middle of what it claims is its first COVID outbreak. Is that a concern in Seoul?

KUHN: Well, yeah. They went from zero cases last week to 2 million suspected cases now. And it'll be interesting to see whether the two presidents talk about ways to help North Korea. But North Korea has refused all aid, including offers of vaccines so far.

MARTIN: I mean, you talked about the concern over North Korea's nuclear program. Obviously, it always comes up when leaders of the U.S. and South Korea meet. But is there something in particular on the agenda for this?

KUHN: Well, North Korea has a knack for always testing weapons at a time that gives them the most political impact. So Seoul says it has a contingency plan in case they detonate an atomic bomb or test a missile while Biden is in town.

MARTIN: Trade is always on the agenda when U.S. presidents go to South Korea. What's the focus there?

KUHN: Well, the focus is going to be on economic security, which includes things like preventing rival powers, including China, from stealing technology, cutting supply chains, dominating high-tech areas such as superconductors and electric vehicles. And South Korea is a key player in both of these industries. So President Biden will be touting South Korean investments in factories to make these products in places like Texas and Georgia. And South Korean President Yoon, meanwhile, is expected to sign on to the U.S.'s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is a new trade agreement that the Biden administration came up with partly to compete with China.

MARTIN: The war in Ukraine is dominating so much of the Biden administration's foreign policy. How will that play into Biden's conversations there?

KUHN: Well, Seoul and Tokyo have joined in sanctioning Russia, but the U.S. would also like South Korea to sell Ukraine weapons, and they seem unwilling to do that. I spoke to Wi Sung-lac, who's a former ambassador to Russia and former top negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue. Here's what he said about Seoul's concerns.

WI SUNG-LAC: Broadly speaking, China, Russia and North Korea is, in a sense, on one side. And on the other side, we have United States, Japan and South Korea and the West. That faultline will be deepened, I think, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

KUHN: So basically, Seoul is concerned that Moscow and Beijing could team up with North Korea against them.

WI: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul, South Korea, thank you.

KUHN: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.