PANMUNJOM, South Korea — Vice President Harris toured the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Thursday, becoming the most senior Biden administration official to inspect the demarcation line during a four-day trip to Asia that has been dominated by Indo-Pacific security concerns.
Those talks have stalled since. North Korea is barreling ahead with its nuclear and weapons program, and the prospect for re-engagement appears further out of reach than ever. As she concluded her visit to the DMZ, Harris said the United States sought a world in which “North Korea is no longer a threat.”
This thin ribbon of land separates North and South Korea
North Korea and its ballistic missile program were “destabilizing the peace and security of this region,” Harris said, adding that the shared goal of the United States and South Korea was “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Washington and Pyongyang have differed on what “complete denuclearization” means in practice.
The DMZ is the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone that runs about 160 miles across the peninsula and has separated the two Koreas since the 1953 armistice in the Korean War.
Harris traveled to Asia to attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July. But she also sat for a trio of bilateral talks that highlighted common economic interests and delved into the potential dangers posed by North Korea and China.
Underscoring the threat, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test a day before Harris arrived in the region, and followed that up with two more launches before she landed in South Korea. The militaries of the United States and South Korea are conducting joint exercises off the eastern coast of the peninsula.
South Korea’s new conservative president has sought to work more closely with Washington to show a harder line toward the North. The allies are leaving the door open to dialogue with North Korea but are in no rush to force a breakthrough.
The strengthening of ties between the United States and South Korea was on display Thursday during Harris’s trip to the DMZ. South Korea is protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which guarantees that the United States would use its nuclear weapons to defend South Korea if needed.
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After visiting U.S. servicemembers and their families at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations command post in the DMZ, she visited Observation Post Ouellette to survey the demarcation zone and peer into North Korea through binoculars. When a South Korean soldier said she may be able to view North Korean soldiers looking back at her, she replied: “I had no doubt that would happen.”
“It’s so close,” she said, referring to the North Korean side.
North Korea’s recent missile launches were the first such tests since June, and the vice president’s visit to the DMZ is likely to spark even more saber-rattling from Pyongyang, as previous visits from U.S. dignitaries have done. Still, Harris has gone out of her way to highlight America’s commitment to its allies in the pivotal Indo-Pacific.
In a speech on the USS Howard destroyer on Wednesday, Harris pledged to intensify “unofficial ties” with Taiwan, days after the Biden administration said his administration would use its armed forces to defend the island if China invades in an “unprecedented attack.”
“China has flexed its military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbors,” Harris said on the deck of the destroyer, during a visit to the largest U.S. Navy installation outside of the United States. “And we have witnessed disturbing behavior in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and most recently, provocations across the Taiwan Strait.”
Harris’s trip was built around Abe’s state funeral on Tuesday, and her plans to visit the DMZ had been kept under wraps by her team. The visit was unexpectedly revealed during Tuesday’s bilateral meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-Soo, who praised her pending trip to the demilitarized zone and her commitment to security on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials scrambled to confirm details of her trip afterward. Typically, official plans to visit the DMZ are announced shortly before the trip because of security concerns.
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Several former presidents have visited the DMZ since it was established some seven decades ago.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump met with Kim, the North Korean leader, at the DMZ in an unsuccessful attempt to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
More recently, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited in August, talking with South Korean leaders about nuclear deterrence. Afterward, North Korea said Pelosi’s visit showed the Biden administration’s open hostility toward North Korea, and called her “the worst destroyer of international peace and stability.”
President Biden visited the DMZ as vice president, but he did not venture to the border during his May trip to Japan and South Korea. North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, according to the South Korean military, and two other missiles a day after Biden left the region.
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