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Biden kicks off Asia trip lauding tech cooperation with South Korea

The president’s five-day trip to South Korea and Japan is meant to emphasize U.S. commitment in the face of a more assertive China

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol watches President Biden speak at a Samsung plant in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on May 20. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — President Biden touched down in South Korea on Friday in the first visit to Asia of his presidency, kicking off a five-day tour designed to underscore his administration’s diplomatic and economic commitment to the region in the face of a rising China.

Biden’s first remarks here nodded to a top domestic priority for the administration, calling for passage of a sweeping bill in Congress meant to boost the United States’ competitiveness against China that House and Senate negotiators are scrambling to finalize.

The president also promoted the two nations’ close ties, particularly on jobs, as he and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took turns promoting the advancements in technology illustrated by the Samsung facility that served as Biden’s first official stop on the trip.

“Our two nations work together to make the best, most advanced technology in the world, and this factory is proof of that,” Biden said to a crowd of 200 people at the plant, located about an hour south of Seoul. “That gives both the Republic of Korea and the United States a competitive edge in the global economy if we can keep our supply chains resilient, reliable and secure.”

Biden’s speech comes as his administration is struggling with the economic and political impact of rising inflation in the United States, with Biden making the case that the legislation designed to boost competitiveness against China will ultimately strengthen supply chains and lower costs for consumers.

China draws North Korea closer than ever as Biden visits region

The legislation, one of the few notable bipartisan bills expected to clear Congress this midterm year, will funnel significant investment into research and development projects in the United States, Biden said.

“So much of the future of the world is going to be written here in the Indo-Pacific for the next several decades,” Biden said. “The decisions we make today will have far-reaching impacts on the world.”

He also emphasized the national security imperative of relationships like that of the United States and South Korea, invoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine” as an example of why supply chains should not depend on “countries that don’t share our values.”

Before he spoke, Biden toured the Samsung facility, which will serve as a model for a plant the company is building in Texas — a sample of the president’s “foreign policy for the middle class” ethos that has guided his administration. The new Samsung plant northeast of Austin will produce computer chips used in electronic items and will create about 3,000 jobs, according to the White House.

In his remarks, Yoon emphasized the two countries’ history working together on developing the semiconductor technology and said he hopes both South Korea and the United States will invest in its development, which he believes will be the “national security assets for our future.”

“I look forward to today’s visit translating into the U.S.-South Korea partnership blossoming into an economic and security alliance based on our partnership for our advanced technologies and the global supply chain,” Yoon said.

Even as the administration tries to steer the trip’s focus to a close economic and military relationship through carefully choreographed events, Biden will confront challenges during his visit.

The trip kicks off amid signs that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test or a long-range ballistic missile test as early as this week, according to intelligence from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. It would be unusual for North Korea to conduct a missile test while a U.S. president is on the Korean Peninsula.

Still, U.S. officials have said they are preparing for potential provocations while Biden is on the ground either in South Korea or Japan.

The looming threat underscores the lack of progress on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, which has pursued an aggressive expansion of its weapons program since the 2019 collapse of diplomatic talks with the United States.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that a test by North Korea would prove that its leaders are “trying to advance their program and their capabilities,” and called the provocations “destabilizing to the region.”

North Korea seeks sanctions relief before agreeing to talks, and the Biden administration has not indicated interest in lifting them.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States is “coordinated closely” with South Korea and Japan.

“If something does occur, it will only serve to reinforce and highlight the fact that the United States is going to be engaged in the Indo-Pacific, is going to be a stalwart ally, and is going to stand up to and not shrink from any acts of aggression,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to South Korea.

Kirby noted that Biden’s decision not to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip to the region at a time when China is holding military drills "is how much we prioritize alliances and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.” Biden will be visiting with counterparts in Japan and South Korea.

Additionally, Biden’s visit to South Korea will serve as an important early test of leadership for Yoon, who took office 10 days ago.

It marks the first head-of-state meeting for Yoon, a first-time politician with no foreign policy experience. It is the first time a U.S. president’s visit has taken place at such an early stage in the South Korean presidency, according to local media reports.

The core of Yoon’s policy is strengthening the U.S.-South Korean alliance and taking a more assertive role on the global stage as the world’s 10th-largest economy, rather than shaping foreign policy goals solely related to the country’s volatile neighbor to the north.

“It’s a terrific opportunity for the president to show how much we’re prioritizing those two relationships, those two alliances, but also to encourage more multilateral cooperation going forward — all with an eye, of course, to China’s coercive intimidation in the region,” Kirby said.

Their trip to the Samsung plant highlights the growing role South Korea is playing in the management of the semiconductor supply chain, which the United States has sought to strengthen as it looks for alternatives to depending on China for semiconductors and other technologies.

Yoon has said he wants South Korea to step up its economic and strategic commitments to expand its alliance with the United States beyond military coordination. He is expected to announce that South Korea will participate in the U.S.-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which seeks to strengthen American economic cooperation with countries in the region and is in part designed to counter China’s influence.

But South Korea is still economically dependent on China, its biggest trading partner, and the presidential office has already rushed to clarify that Seoul is not seeking to exclude Beijing from global supply chains.

While Yoon has signaled that he would take a tougher approach on China, particularly on the issue of human rights, it remains to be seen whether his actions will match his rhetoric.

Lee and Kim reported from Seoul. Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.