SEOUL, South Korea — President Joe Biden tended to both business and security interests today as he wrapped up a three-day visit to South Korea, showcasing Hyundai’s pledge to invest at least $10 billion in electric vehicles and related technologies in the United States.
He also said he was not concerned about any possible provocation by North Korea while he is touring the region.
“We are prepared for anything North Korea does,” Biden said before visiting U.S. and South Korean troops serving together on the peninsula.
Asked if he had a message for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Biden offered a clipped response: “Hello,” he said. “Period.”
It was another sharp departure from his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who once said he “fell in love” with Kim.
Before leaving South Korea and heading to Japan, Biden appeared with Hyundai chief executive Eusiun Chung to highlight the company’s expanded investment in the United States, including $5.5 billion for an electric vehicle and battery factory in Georgia.
“Electric vehicles are good for our climate goals, but they’re also good for jobs,” Biden said. “And they’re good for business.”
Chung also said his company would spend another $5 billion on artificial intelligence for autonomous vehicles and other technologies.
The major U.S. investment by a South Korean company was a reflection of how the countries are leveraging their longstanding military ties into a broader economic partnership.
Earlier in his trip, Biden toured a computer chip plant run by Samsung, the Korean electronics giant that plans to build a $17 billion production facility in Texas.
Biden has made greater economic cooperation with South Korea a priority, saying on Saturday that “it will bring our two countries even closer together, cooperating even more closely than we already do, and help strengthen our supply chains, secure them against shocks and give our economies a competitive edge.”
The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February have forced a deeper rethinking of national security and economic alliances. Coronavirus outbreaks led to shortages of computer chips, autos and other goods that the Biden administration says can ultimately be fixed by having more manufacturing domestically and with trusted allies.
Hyundai’s Georgia factory is expected to employ 8,100 workers and produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually, with plans for construction to begin early next year and production to start in 2025 near the unincorporated town of Ellabell.
But the Hyundai plant shows that there are also tradeoffs as Biden pursues his economic agenda.
The president earlier in his term tried to link the production of electric vehicles to automakers with unionized workers. As part of a $1.85 trillion spending proposal that stalled in the Senate, Biden wanted extra tax credits to go to the buyers of electric vehicles made by unionized factories. That would have provided a boost to the unionized auto plant owned by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV at a vital moment when union membership nationwide has been steadily decreasing.
During the Samsung visit, Biden called on Korean companies building plants in the U.S. to hire union workers. In addition to its coming Texas plant, Samsung has a deal in place with Stellantis to build an electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in the U.S.
“I urge Samsung and Stellantis and any company investing in the United States to enter into partnerships with our most highly skilled and dedicated and engaged workers you can find anywhere in the world: American union members,” he said.
There so far has been no guarantee that the Hyundai Georgia plant’s workers will be unionized. Georgia is a “right-to-work” state, which means that workers may not be required to join a union or make payments to a union as a condition of employment.
A Hyundai spokesperson did not respond to an email asking if the Georgia plant would be unionized. A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said there was no contradiction between Biden encouraging investors to embrace union workforces while his administration does “whatever it can” to encourage investment and bring jobs to the U.S.
Before Sunday’s announcement with Hyundai, Biden attended Mass at his hotel in Seoul along with some White House staff. Biden will also meet with service members and military families at Osan Air Base and address U.S. and Korean troops. Biden and Korean President Yoon Sook Yeol on Saturday announced they will consider expanded joint military exercises to deter the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
The push toward deterrence by Biden and Yoon, who is less than two weeks into his presidency, marks a shift by the leaders from their predecessors. Trump had considered scrapping the exercises and expressed affection for North Korea’s Kim. And the last South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, remained committed to dialogue with Kim to the end of his term despite being repeatedly rebuffed by the North.
Biden decided to skip a visit to the demilitarized zone on the North and South’s border, a regular stop for U.S. presidents when visiting Seoul. Instead, the president — who had visited the DMZ as vice president — was more interested in visiting Osan to see an installation “where the rubber hits the road” for U.S. and South Korean troops maintaining security on the peninsula, said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Yoon campaigned on a promise to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea relationship. He reiterated at a dinner on Saturday in Biden’s honor that it was his goal to move the relationship “beyond security” issues with North Korea, which have long dominated the relationship.
“I will try and design a new future vision of our alliances with you, Mr. President,” Yoon said.
Biden heads to Tokyo later today. On Monday, he will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and lay out his vision for negotiating a new trade agreement called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
A central theme for the trip, Biden’s first to Asia as president, is to tighten U.S. alliances in the Pacific to counter China’s influence in the region.
But within the Biden administration, there’s an ongoing debate about whether to lift some of the $360 billion in Trump-era tariffs on China. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently said some of the tariffs are doing more harm to U.S. business and consumers than they are to China.
On Tuesday, Japan will host Biden at a summit for the Quad, a four-country strategic alliance that also includes Australia and India. The U.S. president will then return to Washington.