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Biden begins South Korea trip at Samsung factory, flagging supply chain woes


President Joe Biden arrived in South Korea Friday on his first Asia trip as US leader, aiming to cement economic and security ties with regional allies despite growing fears of a North Korean nuclear test.

His first stop was a massive Samsung semiconductor factory, where he received a warm welcome from South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, with global supply chain issues topping the agenda.

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Biden, in his first remarks since arriving in South Korea at the start of a trip meant to demonstrate US resolve to lead in Asia, said the two countries’ alliance was “a lynchpin of peace, stability and prosperity” in the world.

Speaking at the factory in Pyeongtaek alongside Yoon, Biden described the advanced semiconductors manufactured there as “a wonder of innovation” and crucial to the world’s economy.

The tiny, smart wafers “enable our modern lives” and are “the key to propelling us into the next era of humanity’s technological development”, he added.

Semiconductors — the microchips essential to most modern devices from phones to cars and high-tech weapons — are at the heart of a global supply chain slowdown that threatens to disrupt the world’s post-Covid economic recovery.

South Korea and the United States need to work to “keep our supply chains resilient, reliable and secure”, Biden said.

“Putin’s brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine has further spotlighted the need to secure our critical supply chain,” he said.

The US needs to ensure “our economic and our national security are not dependent on countries that don’t share our values,” he added.

– Don’t forget to vote –

For the US leader, whose Democratic Party fears a possible trouncing in midterm elections this year, the issue is also an acute domestic political challenge, with Americans increasingly frustrated over rising prices and stuttering economic reopening.

Ahead of the speech, Biden toured the huge Samsung plant, taking in lengthy presentations from staff clad in hazmat suits on the equipment used to produce semiconductors.

After a briefing from a US representative from a California company working with Samsung, Biden quipped: “Don’t forget to vote Peter”.

Samsung employs about 20,000 people within the United States and work is underway to build a new semiconductor plant in Texas, opening in 2024.

South Korea is a semiconductor powerhouse, supplying about 70 percent of chips globally, President Yoon said in his speech, asking Biden to take a “special interest” in South Korean chip firms.

Biden’s visit could help the two allies forge a new “economic and security alliance based on advanced technology and supply-chain cooperation”, Yoon said.

“Semiconductors became something akin to a strategic commodity now,” Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.

China is trying to reduce reliance on US-influenced Dutch and Taiwanese suppliers, and the United States is trying to rebuild its domestic industry, he said.

Biden “needs Samsung’s collaboration in this regard”, he added.

– North Korea test? –

Biden wants the trip to boost a years-long US pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting Washington’s dominance — but it risks being overshadowed by North Korea.

There is a “real risk of some kind of provocation”, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, with South Korean intelligence also warning that Pyongyang had recently completed preparations for a nuclear test.

Security issues were not top of the agenda Friday, but the fact that Biden is visiting Seoul first on his Asia tour indicates that Washington is looking to re-focus on the Korean Peninsula, Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst, told AFP.

“Should Kim proceed with a test during Biden’s visit, he will effectively be helping the two countries find greater justification to work together on the North Korea issue,” she said.

Biden heads to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will also join a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — while in Tokyo.

Even so, the whole point of Biden’s Asia tour is China, Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College, told AFP.

“It’s an effort to strengthen economic and security relationships with the Asia-Pacific region and block China’s growing influence,” she said.

The US is hoping the united Western response to Russia’s almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine will give Beijing pause on its Taiwan ambitions.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the trip is not to confront China on the trip but to highlight that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.

But China said Friday that the US should “build an open and inclusive circle of friends in the Asia-Pacific, instead of assembling closed and exclusive small cliques.”

Sebastian Smith

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