United States Vice-President visits Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarised Zone amid increasing fears of possible North Korean nuclear test

United States Vice-President Kamala Harris has visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in the final leg of a four-day Asia tour.

Ms Harris emphasised US commitment to the security of its Asian allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive North, with the visit coming on the heels of its latest missile launches and amid fears it may conduct a nuclear test.

Visiting the DMZ has become something of a ritual for American leaders hoping to show their resolve to stand firm against aggression.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles while Ms Harris was in Japan a day earlier, and had fired one before she left Washington.

The launches contributed to a record level of missile testing this year intended to move Pyongyang closer to being acknowledged as a full-fledged nuclear power.

Kamala Harris is flanked by military and other officials as she walks through the DMZ.
Ms Harris approached the demarcation line separating the two nations alongside US military officers. (AP: Leah Millis/Pool )

At the DMZ, Ms Harris looked at military installations on the southern side from the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras.

An American colonel pointed out some of the defences along the military demarcation line, including fences topped with barbed wire and claymore mines.

He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols near these fences.

“It’s so close,” Ms Harris said.

Her visit to the observation post came after she met US service members and some of their relatives at the Camp Bonifas Dining Facility, where she said she wanted them to know “how grateful and thankful we are”.

Kamala Harris stands in front of a group of American soldiers and their wives and children.
“I know it’s not always easy. Most of the time it’s not,” she told the officers. (AP: Leah Millis/Pool )

She asked a soldier from Florida whether he had checked in on his family after Hurricane Ian.

“Yeah, they’re up on a hill,” he said.

When another soldier stammered nervously while introducing himself, Ms Harris said, “You know your name!”

“They’re going to give you such a hard time when this is over,” she joked.

Leaders’ concerns over North’s provocations

Earlier Ms Harris met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at his office in Seoul.

Mr Yoon’s office said the pair condemned North Korea’s intensifying weapons tests and reaffirmed the US commitment to defend the South with a full range of its military capabilities in the event of war.

Kamala Harris and Yoon Suk Yeol sit opposite each other at a long table with other officials. US and South Korean flags at the e
Ms Harris’ meeting with Mr Yoon was the latest in a series of discussions with leaders across Asia. (AP: Leah Millis/Pool )

They expressed concern over North Korea’s threats of nuclear conflict and pledged an unspecified stronger response to major North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test, which South Korean officials say could possibly take place in coming months.

Ms Harris and Mr Yoon were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships, and repairing recently strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo to strengthen their trilateral cooperation with Washington in the region.

Ms Harris’ trip was organised so she could attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

However her itinerary was dominated by security concerns, a reflection of fears about China’s growing power and North Korea’s ramped-up testing activity.

In every meeting, Ms Harris tried to lay to rest any fears that the United States was wavering in its commitment to protect its allies, describing American partnerships with South Korea and Japan as the “linchpin” and “cornerstone” of its defence strategy in Asia.

Mr Yoon, who took office earlier this year, had anchored his election campaign with vows to deepen Seoul’s economic and security partnership with Washington to navigate challenges posed by the North Korean threat.

He also pledged to address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, the US-China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

But the alliance has been marked by tension recently.

Electric vehicles bring controversy to US-South Korea alliance

South Koreans have expressed a sense of betrayal over a new law signed by President Joe Biden that prevents electric cars built outside of North America from being eligible for US government subsidies, undermining the competitiveness of automakers like Seoul-based Hyundai.

During their meeting, Ms Harris told Mr Yoon the Biden administration would continue to consult with Seoul to address concerns.

Protesters, two of them wearing masks of Kamala Harris and Yoon Suk Yeol, hold signs up on the street.
Protesters gathered on the street outside to oppose the meeting between the nations’ leaders. (AP: Ahn Young-joon )

Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the dispute over electric vehicles had swiftly become a firestorm that US officials could not ignore.

“It’s taking on a level of urgency that’s making it into a political problem that requires management,” Mr Snyder said, adding there may not be a simple solution.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be easy for the Biden administration to do that.”

‘We must pay attention to gender equity’ to strengthen democracy

After meeting Mr Yoon, Ms Harris held a roundtable with female leaders in business, media, culture and sports on gender equity issues.

Mr Yoon has faced criticism for the lack of female representation in government and his downplaying of broader inequalities.

Kamala Harris sits in the middle with multiple women on tables either side of her.
Champion figure skater Kim Yuna, Naver CEO Choi Soo-yeon and Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung were among those who attended the meeting. (AP: Leah Millis/Pool )

He claimed during his campaign South Korea no longer had any structural barriers to women’s success, which experts said ignored the country’s large gender pay gaps and the under representation of women in corporate board rooms and politics.

“If we want to strengthen democracy, we must pay attention to gender equity,” said Ms Harris, adding she had raised the issue with Mr Yoon.

Security issues dominate VP’s Asia tour

As they did at her meetings in Japan, regional security issues dominated the final day of Ms Harris’ trip.

There were indications North Korea may up its weapons demonstrations soon as it refined its missiles and delivery.

South Korean officials said they had detected signs North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile system designed to be fired from submarines.

The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was scheduled to train with South Korean and Japanese warships to counter North Korean submarine threats.

US and South Korean officials said North Korea was possibly gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017.

That test could come after China holds its Communist Party convention in mid-October, but before the United States holds its midterm elections in November, according to South Korean officials who attended a closed-door briefing from the National Intelligence Service.

North Korea has punctuated its testing activity with repeated threats of nuclear conflict.

Pyongyang’s parliament this month authorised the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in a broad range of scenarios where its leadership comes under threat.

Mr Yoon, during a news conference in August, said his government had no plans to pursue its own deterrent and called for North Korea to return to nuclear diplomacy.