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South Korea’s President vows to help end Ukraine conflict as U.S. trip begins

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With security matters at the top of his agenda, President Yoon Suk Yeol began a five-day trip to the United States by paying respects to veterans and meeting with overseas Koreans in Hawaii before attending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit later this week.

Yoon was accompanied by first lady Kim Keon Hee as he arrived in Honolulu for a two-day trip, starting with a visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu to lay wreaths and pay respects to fallen veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The presidential couple later attended a dinner event for overseas compatriots and ethnic Koreans residing in Hawaii, where Yoon highlighted his commitment to end Russia’s war in Ukraine jointly with the international community.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, center left, greets Korean War veterans after a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu on Monday. The presidential couple arrived in Hawaii earlier that day to start a five-day trip to the United States, which later takes them to Washington for the NATO summit. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

“Russia and North Korea are engaging in military and economic cooperation that directly violates UN Security Council resolutions, raising concerns in the international community,” Yoon said. “Our government will cooperate with countries that share the universal values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law.”

He then pledged to work with like-minded countries to “swiftly end the war in Ukraine and help the international community achieve peace and prosperity.”

Highlighting the achievements in the Korea-U.S. alliance, as well as tighter trilateral cooperation with Japan, Yoon said, “This shows that the international community’s expectations for Korea’s role are growing as we enter an era where the security of the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific can’t be separated.”

Earlier in the day, Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Gen. Paul LaCamera, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi took part in the wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery alongside Korean security and foreign affairs officials.

Yoon and Kim also exchanged greetings with six Korean War veterans who attended the event and expressed gratitude for their services.

Over 10,000 Korean War veterans are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery, located at Punchbowl Crater and established in 1949 to honor troops who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Thus, it is considered a symbolic site representative of the decades-old Korea-U.S. alliance forged in blood.

The presidential office said the visit to the Punchbowl Cemetery and wreath-laying ceremony “reflects the historical significance of our alliance and shows the highest respect to veterans.”

Hundreds of unknown soldiers who have yet to be identified and have their remains returned to their families are buried under stone slabs engraved with the words, “US UNKNOWN KOREA.”

Previously, three former Korean presidents — Syngman Rhee, Lee Myung-bak and Moon Jae-in — visited the cemetery.

Yoon and Kim visited the grave of Benjamin Wilson (1921-1988), an American veteran who received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration, for his outstanding achievements in the Korean War, fighting in the Battle of Hwacheon in Gangwon in 1951.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, right, and first lady Kim Keon Hee lay wreaths at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu to respects to fallen veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War on Monday. The presidential couple arrived in Hawaii earlier that day to start a five-day trip to the United States, which later takes to Washington for the NATO summit. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
President Yoon Suk Yeol, right, and first lady Kim Keon Hee lay wreaths at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu to respects to fallen veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War on Monday. The presidential couple arrived in Hawaii earlier that day to start a five-day trip to the United States, which later takes to Washington for the NATO summit. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

On Tuesday, Yoon was scheduled to receive a security briefing at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and give words of encouragement to the soldiers there.

The Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 and is the United States’ oldest and largest unified combatant command with some 380,000 service members.

The command, responsible for security in the Indo-Pacific region, is one of six geographic combatant commands of the U.S. military. It integrates U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps forces, covering more of the globe than the other five commands and oversees the 28,500-strong U.S. troop presence in South Korea, where American forces have been stationed since the outbreak of the Korean War over seven decades ago.

Yoon’s visit to the command could send a powerful message to the international community on the strength of the Seoul-Washington alliance amid growing security threats due to the mutual defense pact signed between Pyongyang and Moscow following last month’s summit between the two countries’ leaders.

The presidential office noted this will be the first visit by a Korean president to the command since late President Kim Young-sam did so 29 years ago.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, center right, accompanied by first lady Kim Keon Hee, greets ethnic Koreans and overseas compatriots residing in Hawaii at a hotel in Honolulu on Monday evening. The presidential couple arrived in Hawaii earlier that day to start a five-day trip to the United States which later takes them to Washington for the NATO summit. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
President Yoon Suk Yeol, center right, accompanied by first lady Kim Keon Hee, greets ethnic Koreans and overseas compatriots residing in Hawaii at a hotel in Honolulu on Monday evening. The presidential couple arrived in Hawaii earlier that day to start a five-day trip to the United States which later takes them to Washington for the NATO summit. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Yoon heads to Washington on Wednesday for the second leg of his U.S. trip to participate in the NATO summit, where he is expected to focus on concerns over budding military cooperation between North Korea and Russia.

On the margins of the NATO summit, Yoon is expected to hold bilateral talks with some 10 countries, including possibly Japan, according to the presidential office Monday.

Yoon’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, currently being arranged, could discuss countermeasures against North Korea-Russia military cooperation, which has been upgraded to the level of a quasi-alliance after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new comprehensive strategic partnership treaty last month.

Yoon told Reuters in a written interview Monday that South Korea would decide on weapons support for Ukraine based on how the new defense pact between North Korea and Russia plays out.

It is unclear if Yoon will hold separate bilateral talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, who has a tight schedule as host of the NATO summit.

On Thursday, Yoon will attend the NATO summit, meet with the other Indo-Pacific NATO partner countries and speak at the NATO Public Forum.

South Korea was invited to the NATO summit for a third consecutive year as one of four NATO partners in the Indo-Pacific region, or IP4, which also includes Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Yoon will also meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]