South Korea's menacing neighbor to the north will cast a shadow over President Joe Biden's second day in Asia.
After honoring soldiers who died during the Korean War, Biden will have an extended discussion with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Yoon took office less than two weeks ago after a closely contested March election in which he vowed to bolster South Korea's defenses against North Korea.
Strengthening the U.S. commitment to "extended deterrence" is the first issue Yoon wants to discuss with Biden, an adviser to the recently elected president told reporters before the trip.
Their summit, the earliest an American president has visited South Korea after an election, is also an opportunity for Biden and Yoon to develop a personal relationship. That will help Yoon meet another campaign promise of deepening the alliance between the two countries and assist Biden's goal of building a coalition in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's rising influence.
Using U.S. military might, particularly its nuclear forces, to protect South Korea has been a main pillar of the security alliance between the two nations since the end of the Korean War.
The commitment has become more important because of North Korea's progressing missile and nuclear program.
North Korea has test-launched multiple missiles in recent months, including nuclear-capable missiles potentially able to reach South Korea, Japan or the U.S.
Since Biden took office, the administration hasn't been able to open the lines of communication with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
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North Korea could conduct a missile or nuclear test during Biden's five-day trip to Asia, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.
"North Korea has a long history - going back decades, at this point - of missile tests, both to advance their capabilities and to cause provocations," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters as Biden embarked on his five-day trip to Asia on Thursday. "We know what we will do to respond to that."
Nearly 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the Korean peninsula. Former President Donald Trump proposed the "complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea," according to former defense secretary Mark Esper. Trump wanted the troops gone unless South Korea increased its share of the cost, former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his 2020 memoir.
Since 1991, the U.S. has had only conventional weapons at its military installations in South Korea. But it maintains the threat of an in-kind retaliation against North Korea through its "nuclear umbrella."
At Seoul National Cemetery on Saturday, Biden participated in a wreath laying ceremony to pay his respects to fallen soldiers, many of whom died fighting alongside U.S. forces in the Korean War. At the altar of the Memorial Tower, which enshrines tablets documenting soldiers who died during the war but whose bodies were never found, Biden sprinkled three pinches of ash from incense into an urn on a red carpet.
When Yoon's predecessor, Moon Jae-in, visited Washington, D.C., last year, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden-Yoon meeting: North Korea casts shadow over South Korea talks