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Biden, South Korea's Yoon to meet amid worries about North Korea

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One to depart for his first trip to Asia as sitting president from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. May 19, 2022. [Reuters]

President Joe Biden is likely to get a warm welcome from South Korea's leadership on his first trip to Asia, but he may face a less friendly greeting from North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Biden lands in South Korea on Friday evening, where he meets new President Yoon Suk-yeol, a relative newcomer to politics, for the first time in person.

The two will tour a Samsung Electronics plant together on Friday ahead of a full day of events on Saturday. 

"I think (Biden's visit) will serve as an opportunity for the Korea-U.S. alliance to become stronger and more inclusive because there are many changes happening in the international community," Yoon told reporters outside his office on Friday.

Biden and Yoon may quickly move from formalities to dealing with a weighty issue with North Korea at the top of the agenda.

Leader Kim Jong Un abandoned a freeze on intercontinental ballistic missile testing and appears poised to resume testing of nuclear bombs, perhaps while Biden is in the region. 

U.S. cooperation with South Korea and Japan "will only strengthen in the face of further provocations" by North Korea, Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters en route to South Korea when asked about the possibility of a weapons test.

"We are prepared for those eventualities," Sullivan said. The United States has told allies and China that such a provocation during the U.S. visit would "cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region," he said.

Yoon has signalled he will take a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor and is expected to ask for Biden's help. Yoon has warned of a preemptive strike if there is a sign of an imminent attack and vowed to strengthen the South's deterrent capability.

North Korea has revealed a Covid-19 outbreak in the past week, but it has ignored calls to return to diplomacy.

Washington has said it is open to direct talks at any time with Kim, but it has not publicly offered new ideas about how to coax the country's leadership into the conversation. 

Biden decided not to visit the heavily fortified demilitarized zone separating the South from North Korea.

Countering China's presence in the region is a key Biden theme on the trip, but South Korea is likely to offer a cautious public tone on the topic given Beijing is Seoul's top trading partner.

South Korea is also expected to be among the inaugural members of Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will be announced during the trip to set standards on labour, the environment and supply chains.

Asked about Beijing's opposition to the IPEF, Yoon said that joining the framework does not have to conflict with South Korea's economic ties with China.

"There is no need to see it as a zero-sum," he said.

Hyundai Motor Co has been working on plans to build a new electric-vehicle manufacturing plant in the United States, and an announcement could coincide with Biden's visit.