Seoul says Pelosi DMZ visit sends clear message to North

SEOUL, South Korea -- After her high-profile trip to Taiwan, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in South Korea Thursday where her agenda included a visit to the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) -- but not a meeting with the country's president.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and South Korean National Assembly speaker Kim Jin-pyo attend a joint press announcement after their meeting at the National Assembly in Seoul on August 4, 2022. KIM Min-Hee / POOL / AFP

Pelosi, who arrived in Seoul late Wednesday, met top parliamentary officials in the capital before her scheduled trip to the border with the nuclear-armed North, where the two neighbours' forces stand face to face, a South Korean official said.

She will be the highest-ranking US official to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) and inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom since then president Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un there in 2019.

But those talks collapsed and North Korea has conducted a record-breaking blitz of weapons tests so far this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017.

Pelosi discussed the "grave situation" and growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes with her South Korean counterpart, National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo.

And her trip to the DMZ is seen by President Yoon Suk-yeol as "a sign of strong deterrence between South Korea and the US against North Korea," an official from his office said Thursday.

- Pelosi snub? -

Yoon, who spoke to Pelosi by phone but did not meet her in person as he is officially on holiday this week, is facing growing domestic criticism over his perceived snub of the second in line to the US Presidency.

Local media and lawmakers from Yoon's party have pointed to the fact that no official delegation was sent to greet Pelosi, even as Yoon was photographed attending a play in central Seoul the same night.

"What should we make of the fact that is watching a play and have a gathering but not meeting the US House Speaker?" a former lawmaker from Yoon's People's Power party, Yoo Seung-min, wrote on Facebook Thursday.

"Speaker Pelosi is visiting the JSA today. It is undesirable to think that the leader of our ally's parliament visits the forefront of our security but there won't be any meetings between our president and her."

Yoon took office in May, vowing to boost ties with the United States, including ramping up the joint military drills that always infuriate North Korea, which views them as rehearsals for invasion.

He had also struck a hawkish, anti-China tone on the campaign trail, saying he wanted to buy an additional THAAD US missile system to counter the North, despite staunch opposition from Beijing.

But critical local media reports now speculate he may have avoided meeting Pelosi in a bid to placate China.

- Taiwan visit -

At a brief press conference in Seoul, during which she did not take any questions, Pelosi hailed the "special" relationship between South Korea and the United States -- but made no mention of her visit to Taipei.

"The US-Republic of Korea relationship is special to us," she said, adding that the bond which was forged during the Korean war "from urgency and security... has become the warmest of friendships."

Pelosi had defied repeated Chinese warnings to visit Taiwan, which China considers its territory. Beijing had said any such trip would be viewed as a major provocation.

It has since launched massive military drills around the island.

China is North Korea's key ally and trade partner.

Pyongyang on Wednesday echoed Beijing's criticism of the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, describing it as "impudent interference" in China's internal affairs and blaming Washington for raising regional tensions.

South Korea is the fourth stop in Pelosi's Asia tour, following Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

She is scheduled to fly to Japan later on Thursday for the final leg of her Asia trip.