US Vice President Kamala Harris has arrived in Seoul on a trip designed to underline the United States’s commitment to South Korea as Pyongyang continued an unprecedented blitz of weapons testing with the launch of two ballistic missiles.
Shortly after touching down from Japan on Thursday morning, Harris met South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at his office in Seoul and praised the alliance between the countries as a “linchpin of security and prosperity”.
Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, called her visit “another turning point” in strengthening ties.
Harris will visit the heavily-fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ), which has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, later in the day.
“It’s almost on the ‘to-do list’ of any vice president or president visiting this part of the world, to visit the DMZ,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, who is in Paju, South Korea, near the border.
US President Joe Biden visited the area when he was vice president in 2013, while former President Donald Trump went there in 2019, creating headlines by shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and stepping into North Korea.
Those were “heady days”, McBride said, and much has changed since.
“It’s an indication of how far the relationship has slipped backwards that when Harris visits the DMZ, she is likely to follow a much more standard visit, probably meeting different service personnel, [and] peering across to the north,” he said.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, while Harris was in Japan, and had fired one before she left Washington, DC, on Sunday. Many analysts say it is preparing to launch its first nuclear weapon in five years.
Harris and Yoon were expected to discuss the North Korean threat and the US commitments to defend South Korea. They were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships and repairing recently strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
While in Tokyo, where she attended the state funeral of assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Harris condemned North Korea’s “illicit weapons programme”.
In Washington, DC, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the latest missile tests would not deter Harris from the DMZ and that she wanted to demonstrate the US’s “rock-solid commitment” to regional security.
“As you know, North Korea has a history of doing these types of tests,” Jean-Pierre said, calling it “not unusual”.
Yoon campaigned for election on promises to deepen Seoul’s economic and security partnership with Washington to better address the challenges posed by North Korea, and address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, US-China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
A spat between the two allies over electric vehicles has created tensions, but security issues are likely to dominate Harris’s one-day visit.
South Korea and the US this year resumed large-scale combined military exercises that had been downsized or suspended during the Trump administration to support his ultimately futile nuclear diplomacy with Kim.
Earlier this week, armed forces from the two countries conducted a military drill in waters off South Korea’s east coast involving the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which is in South Korea for the first time in five years.
And on Friday, South Korea’s navy will stage trilateral anti-submarine exercises with US and Japanese forces that are designed to improve their capability to counter evolving North Korean threats, including its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The drills will bring together warships, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the USS Chancellorsville guided-missile cruiser, the USS Barry guided-missile destroyer, South Korea’s Munmu the Great destroyer and Japan’s Asahi tanker.