SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — After infuriating China over her trip to Taiwan, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put South Korean political leaders in Seoul on Thursday but avoided making direct public comments on cross-Strait relations that could have further increased regional tensions.
Pelosi, the first incumbent House speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years, said Wednesday in Taipei that the American commitment to democracy on the self-governing island and elsewhere “remains ironclad.” In response, China on Thursday began military exercises, including missile strike training in six zones surrounding Taiwan, in what could be the biggest of their kind since the mid-1990s.
After visiting Taiwan, Pelosi and other members of Congress flew to South Korea — a key US ally where about 28,500 American troops are deployed — on Wednesday evening, as part of an Asian tour that included stops in Singapore and Malaysia.
She met South Korean National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin Pyo and other senior members of Parliament on Thursday. After that hour-long meeting, Pelosi spoke about the bilateral alliance, forged in blood during the 1950-53 Korean War, and legislative efforts to support a push to boost ties but didn’t directly mention her Taiwan visit or the Chinese protests.
“We also come to say to you that a friendship, a relationship that began from urgency and security, many years ago, has become the warmest of friendships,” Pelosi said in a joint news conference with Kim. “We want to advance security, economy and governance in the inter-parliamentary way.”
Neither Pelosi nor Kim took questions from journalists.
Kim said he and Pelosi shared concerns about North Korea’s increasing nuclear threats. He said the two agreed to support their governments’ push to establish denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula based on both strong deterrence against North Korea and diplomacy.
Later in the day, Pelosi planned to visit an inter-Korean border area that is jointly controlled by the American-led UN Command and North Korea, a South Korean official said requesting anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media on the matter .
If that visit occurs, Pelosi would be the highest-level American to go to the Joint Security Area since then-President Donald Trump went there in 2019 for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Sitting inside the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile)-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer created at the end of the Korean War, the JSA is the site of past bloodshed and a venue for numerous talks. US presidents and other top officials have often traveled to the JSA and other border areas to reaffirm their security commitment to South Korea.
Any critical statement of North Korea by Pelosi is certain to draw a furious response from Pyongyang. On Wednesday, the North’s Foreign Ministry slammed the United States over her Taiwan trip, saying that “the current situation clearly shows that the impudent interference of the US in internal affairs of other countries.”
Pelosi will speak by phone Thursday afternoon with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is on a vacation this week, according to Yoon’s office. No face-to-face meeting has been arranged between them. Yoon, a conservative, took office in May with a vow to boost South Korea’s military alliance with the United States and take a tougher line on North Korean provocations.
The Chinese military exercises launched Thursday involved its navy, air force and other departments and are to last until Sunday. They include missile strikes on targets in the seas north and south of the island in an echo of the last major Chinese military drills aimed at intimidating Taiwan’s leaders and voters held in 1995 and 1996.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the exercises were joint operations focused on “blockade, sea target assault, strike on ground targets, and airspace control.” Taiwan has put its military on alert and staged civil defense drills, while the US has numerous naval assets in the area.
China also already flew fighter jets and other war planes toward Taiwan, and blocked imports of citrus and fish from Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry called the Chinese drills “unreasonable actions in an attempt to change the status quo, destroy the peace and stability of the region.”
Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has angered China, because it views the island nation as a breakaway province to be annexed by force if necessary. China views visits to Taiwan by foreign officials as recognizing its sovereignty.
“Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” Pelosi said in a short speech during a meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday. “America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.”
The Biden administration and Pelosi have said the United States remains committed to the so-called one-China policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taipei. The administration discouraged but did not prevent Pelosi from visiting.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby sought to tamp down fears. He told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that US officials “don’t believe we’re at the brink now, and there’s certainly no reason for anybody to be talking about being at the brink going forward.”
Addressing Beijing’s threats, Pelosi said in Taiwan she hopes it’s clear that while China has prevented Taiwan from attending certain international meetings, “that they understand they will not stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan as a show of friendship and of support.”
Pelosi noted that congressional support for Taiwan is bipartisan, and she praised the island’s democracy. She stopped short of saying that the US would defend Taiwan militarily and emphasized that Congress is “committed to the security of Taiwan, in order to have Taiwan be able to most effectively defend themselves.”
Tsai pushed back firmly against Beijing’s military exercises, parts of which will enter Taiwanese waters.
“Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down,” Tsai said at her meeting with Pelosi. “We will firmly uphold our nation’s sovereignty and continue to hold the line of defense for democracy.”
On Thursday, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations called for calm in the Taiwan Strait, urging against any “provocative action.” ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a regional forum said they were concerned the situation could “destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.”
Pelosi’s focus has always been the same, she said, going back to her 1991 visit to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, when she and other lawmakers unfurled a small banner supporting democracy two years after a bloody military crackdown on protesters at the square. That visit was also about human rights and what she called dangerous technology transfers to “rogue countries.”
Pelosi’s trip heightened US-China tensions more than visits by other members of Congress because of her position as leader of the House of Representatives. The last House speaker to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich in 1997.
China and Taiwan, which split in 1949 after a civil war, have no official relations but multibillion-dollar business ties.
Wu reported from Taipei Taiwan.
Associated Press writer David Rising in Phnom Penh, Cambodia contributed to this report.