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South Korea president-elect’s team visits US with eye on early President Biden summit

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A team of foreign policy and security advisers to South Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is visiting the United States this week, seeking to help engineer an early summit with President Joe Biden and coordinate efforts to rein in North Korea's intensifying weapons tests, sources said on Monday.

Conservative outsider Yoon won the March 9 election and is working to map out his foreign policy agenda ahead of his swearing in on May 10, just as tension is flaring in the wake of North Korea’s launch last month of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

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Yoon had vowed to ramp up defence capability to counter the North’s threats, including by buying an additional new THAAD US missile system, but left the door open for dialogue.

A seven-strong delegation led by Park Jin, a four-term lawmaker of Yoon's People Power Party (PPP), and former vice foreign minister Cho Tae-yong arrived in Washington for talks with US officials, politicians and academics. Both Park and Cho are being floated as strong candidates to be foreign minister in Yoon's cabinet.

Topping their agenda is a push for a potential summit in Seoul between Yoon and Biden as early as May when Biden visits Japan for a meeting of the Quad group, which also includes
Australia and India, two sources familiar with the team’s plan and involved in Yoon’s foreign policy deliberations told Reuters.

The date of the Quad conference has not yet been announced, but local elections in Australia and Japan, expected in May and July respectively, are complicating Biden's earlier plans for a May trip, one of the sources said.

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison must call a federal election by May 21 but has yet to finalize a date. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also faces a crucial election for the upper house of parliament in July, as a victory could ensure several election-free, politically stable years to pursue his policy goals.

“My understanding is that the Japan side had asked for holding the Quad summit in late April so that they can have enough time to prep for the election,” the source said on condition of anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivity.

“But the best time for us is somewhere between those two elections, possibly around late May, and Washington would also want to talk to the new president rather than being here before he takes office.”

An early summit has become all the more important due to North Korea’s March 24 missile launch - its first full ICBM test since 2017 - which prompted Yoon to revive a scrapped plan to send envoys to Washington, the source said.

There are also growing signs that Pyongyang could soon test a nuclear weapon for the first time since 2017, after leader Kim Jong Un threatened to break his self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear testing.

But when asked if the team would discuss Yoon’s pledge of a THAAD battery purchase, the source said that cannot be ruled out but is “not a priority” and they have “no reason to rush.”

Park, arriving in Washington on Sunday, told reporters that his group would explore a “concrete roadmap” for North Korea’s denuclearization.

Park said a Yoon-Biden summit would “naturally happen” if Biden visits Asia as expected, but declined to elaborate.

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