SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Biden continues his Asian trip this hour. He's completed a meeting with the new South Korean president, Yoon Suk Yeol, who's just 11 days into the job and promises a tougher line on North Korea. The U.S. and South Korea have expressed concern the North might test a nuclear weapon or missiles while President Biden is visiting the South. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us.
Anthony, thanks for being with us.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nice to join you, Scott.
SIMON: What kind of harder line on North Korea did the presidents outline?
KUHN: Well, in recent years, joint military exercises between the allies intended to deter North Korea were scaled back in order to make way for diplomacy. But no diplomacy has been happening since 2019. So those exercises are likely to expand. They're also going to consider moving more U.S. military hardware, such as planes and ships, possibly nuclear capable, to or near the Korean Peninsula. And they're going to cooperate on cyber threats from North Korea. They also say they're going to focus on the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And it looks like this could be a recipe for a period of increased tensions and diplomatic stalemates because both sides expect the other side to make the first move and make concessions, which neither side has been willing to do.
SIMON: And additionally, North Korea is in the grip of what it claims is its first COVID-19 outbreak. Did that come up?
KUHN: Yes. After denying that it had any COVID cases for the past two years, North Korea now admits to having more than 2 million, although they don't have enough testing, and so it's hard to know the extent of it. But South Korea and China have offered vaccines in assistance. President Biden said the U.S. has also offered assistance but received no response. A reporter asked Biden if he'd be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un, and here's what he said.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That would be dependent on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious.
KUHN: As you may remember, Biden was critical of his predecessor, President Trump's, summitry with Kim Jong Un as essentially high-stakes poker, which ended in 2019 without a deal.
SIMON: Yeah, the U.S. policy in Asia, of course, has been focused on competition with China. Has that formed a subtext to the visit so far?
KUHN: Yes. There were a coded reference to preserving the international order, the rule of law, and to flashpoints, such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. But there's been no movement past these sort of ways of speaking, no language aimed at antagonizing China. It's interesting that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol talked about how the U.S. and South Korea share values of freedom, democracy and human rights, but he added that he didn't want to exclude countries that don't share those values, suggesting that he's not ready to offend China, which is South Korea's biggest trade partner.
SIMON: Isn't U.S. competition with China largely economic, or are America and South Korea trying to tighten economic ties now?
KUHN: Yes, they are. And the buzzword of this is economic security, which means securing supply chains, protecting intellectual property, developing high-tech products. And the two governments are going to set up a dialogue on how to cooperate more. And President Biden's first stop in South Korea on Friday was a Samsung Semiconductor factory. He touted the fact that Samsung is investing in a big new semiconductor plant in Texas. It's important to remember, though, that South Korea and Samsung are doing this because they feel they're getting the right labor costs and infrastructure and incentives. But the technology belongs to South Korea, and if they don't get those conditions, I think they'll probably continue to make them on their own turf.
SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Anthony, thanks so much.
KUHN: Thank you, Scott.
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