America and South Korea have agreed to expand military exercises to counter the threat from the north, while offering Pyongyang help to tackle its COVID-19 outbreak.
Speaking on a visit to Seoul, US President Joe Biden expressed concern about the Nordic region’s growing nuclear capacity and said he would meet its leader Kim Jong Un if “he was serious”.
Sir. Biden was in the country for his first diplomatic talks with his new South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated 11 days ago.
Dominant discussions continued to be tense North Korea and fears it may launch new missile tests.
In a joint statement, Mr Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to defend South Korea with nuclear weapons, if necessary.
The two sides agreed to consider expanding their combined military exercises, which had been reduced in recent years in an attempt to ease difficult relations with the Nordic region.
The prospect of major exercises between the Allies risks an angry response from North Korea.
Pyongyang has defended its nuclear and missile development on what it sees as US threats and has long described the exercises as invasion exercises, although the United States and South Korea maintain that they are defensive.
The United States also promised to deploy, if necessary, “strategic assets”, which typically include long-range bombers, submarines or aircraft carriers.
Both leaders insisted they were open to diplomacy with Pyongyang.
Sir. Biden said: “As to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea, it would depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious.”
He also revealed that Washington had offered COVID-19 vaccines to China and North Korea, which is tackle its first recognized outbreak.
“We have no answer,” said Mr Biden.
Seoul had also offered assistance to the Nordic region, which has so far been ignored.
While North Korea on Saturday reported more than 200,000 new patients suffering from “fever” for a fifth day in a row Saturday, the country has little in the way of vaccines or modern treatment for the pandemic.
The snub to offer coronavirus assistance has diminished hopes that such cooperation could help ease nuclear tensions or even lead to negotiations.
So far this year North Korea has tested missiles 16 separate times, including in March, when its first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 demonstrated a potential range that includes the entire U.S. mainland.
The Biden administration has called on China to deter Pyongyang from participating in further tests.