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On Asia trip, Biden seeks to strengthen relationship with new South Korean leader

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The last time a U.S. president visited South Korea, the headlines came when then-President Donald Trump took a few steps in to North Korea and spoke about his friendship with that country's leader, Kim Jong Un. Fast-forward almost three years. President Biden is in Seoul, emphasizing his friendship with new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. And Biden is taking a very different tack toward the North. NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us from Seoul. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So President Biden spent the day with the new South Korean president. What did they discuss about North Korea and, in particular, the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program?

KHALID: Well, Sacha, I'm here in Seoul, and I will say I really got a chance to see firsthand how eager both of these leaders are to prove that this is an important relationship to them. One key development is that President Biden said he's open to expanding joint military exercises with South Korea. That's something that former President Donald Trump had drastically curtailed as he tried to pursue this friendship with the North Korean leader. President Biden also said he's open to diplomacy with North Korea, and the U.S. is offering to help with vaccines, given the rise of COVID cases there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And we're prepared to do that immediately. We've gotten no response. With regard to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea, that would be depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious.

KHALID: Both Biden and Yoon insist that North Korea needs to denuclearize. But in recent months, we've actually seen North Korea actively and aggressively testing missiles.

PFEIFFER: So the presidents agreed to more military exercises. What else did they discuss?

KHALID: You know, I was with the president as he had this somber trip out to the Seoul National Cemetery to put ashes into an urn to honor Koreans who had lost their lives in the Korean War. And I will say just that entire, you know, experience is really a testament to how long this military alliance has been with the United States. But I will say, you know, really, this trip is not just about military alliances. It's also about building an economic relationship, which has been key to the president's agenda. Here he is delivering a toast at the formal state dinner that capped off their day together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Revitalizing this alliance was one of my key foreign policy priorities when I took office last year.

KHALID: And, Sacha, the president says that the pandemic exposed just how fragile the global supply chain is, particularly for key items like semiconductors, and that he wants to create more resiliency. He says that means working with countries like South Korea that have shared values, as opposed to countries that do not have shared values.

PFEIFFER: I assume that's a reference to countries like China. What did they say about China?

KHALID: You know, for President Biden, China is very much at the forefront of his entire strategy in this region. And when he's with President Yoon in public, I did not hear him, you know, railing on China by name. But he did refer today to military aggression in the South China Sea and economic competition. You know, when those two leaders, I will say, were standing side by side, though, at a press conference. President Yoon did not utter a word directly about China, which I think is worth pointing out because South Korea's biggest trading partner is China. President Yoon of South Korea did say that he's willing to become a part of this new Indo-Pacific economic framework that Biden is setting up. And we don't have a whole lot of details about what that is going to be. It's not exactly a trade agreement. It doesn't appear to have the kind of incentives or enforcement mechanisms that usual trade agreements have. But it's basically the Biden alternative to China's growing influence in the region, and we expect to hear more about this economic plan in Tokyo, where the president will be next.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Asma Khalid in Seoul. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: Happy to do it, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.