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Biden meets with South Korea's Moon as North Korea threats loom large

The White House meeting on Friday underscores Asia's continuing status as the administration's foreign policy focus.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on Friday afternoon, Biden's second in-person meeting with a foreign leader since taking office.

The meeting follows a visit last month from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, underscoring the Biden administration's focus on the Asia-Pacific region as a foreign policy priority, even as its attention recently has been directed at the conflict between Israel and Gaza.

Ahead of Friday's meeting, Moon had emphasized the importance of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and indicated that he planned to push Biden to resume talks with North Korea, which now has more nuclear weapons than ever.

"Today we made important progress on a range of issues," Biden said during a news conference.

Biden said that the he expressed to Moon the United States' "willingness to engage diplomatically" with North Korea in an effort to take "pragmatic steps that will reduce tensions as we move towards our ultimate goal of denuclearization."

Biden said he committed to work closely with Moon on their strategy and approach to North Korea and announced he would appoint Ambassador Sung Kim, the senior State Department official for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as special envoy for North Korea.

"The most urgent common task that our two countries must undertake is achieving complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula," Moon stressed.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month that administration officials had completed a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea and suggested that Biden's approach to North Korea would strike a balance between "achieving a grand bargain" and "strategic patience."

Biden did not rule out the possibility of meeting with the North Korean leader Friday, but said that there would have to be a commitment to discuss North Korea's nuclear arsenal in order for that to happen.

Biden and Moon said they also discussed global Covid-19 vaccine supplies, climate change, strengthening cybersecurity, 5G network, semiconductors, among other topics.

The meeting came as Moon is facing domestic pressure to boost South Korea's vaccine supply, a topic he was expected to press Biden on during their meeting.

Only around 7 percent of the South Korean population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to data by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. South Korean health authorities extended social distancing rules for another three weeks Friday as infections continued to spread throughout the country.

Biden said he would give 550,000 vaccinations to Korean service members who engage regularly with U.S. forces. The leaders also committed to working together to boost vaccine supplies in the region.

Despite news the Israel and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire Thursday, Biden was still pressed by reporters on his approach to Israel, especially as members of his own party have become increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian people in recent years.

"There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. Period. No shift, not at all," Biden said. "But I'll tell you what there is a shift in: we need a two state solution. It is the only answer."

Prior to the news conference, Biden awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest military recognition, to retired Army Colonel Ralph Puckett for acts of “gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” during the Korean War.

Moon attended the ceremony and called Puckett “a true hero of the Korean War.” It is the first time that a foreign leader has participated in a Medal of Honor ceremony.

Vice President Kamala Harris also met with Moon on Friday morning, saying in brief remarks that they would be discussing a range of issues including "challenges that exist on the Korean Peninsula."