US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met top South Korean political leaders on Thursday, a day after she concluded her high-profile visit to Taiwan by renewing Washington's "ironclad" commitment to defending democracy on the self-governing island despite vehement protests from China.
Regional tensions are rising following Pelosi's Taiwan trip, with China preparing to launch its largest military maneuvers aimed at Taiwan in more than a quarter of a century in response.
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. After South Korea, they will travel to Japan.
On Thursday, Pelosi met South Korean National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin Pyo and other senior members of Parliament for talks on regional security, economic cooperation and climate issues. Before their talks, live TV footage showed Kim and Pelosi bumping elbows and posing for a photo in front of South Korean and US national flags.
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 4km -wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer created at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, the JSA is the site of past bloodshed and a venue for numerous talks. US presidents and other top officials have often travelled to the JSA and other border areas to reaffirm their security commitment to South Korea.
Any statement critical 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."
Also on Thursday afternoon, Pelosi will speak by phone 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.
Pelosi's Taiwan visit, the first by an incumbent House speaker in 25 years, has infuriated China, which views the island nation as a breakaway province to be annexed by force if necessary. China views visiting 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 defence ties with Taipei. The administration discouraged but did not prevent Pelosi from visiting.
The military exercises that China plans to stage in response to Pelosi's Taiwan visit are to start Thursday and involve live fire. They would be the biggest aimed at Taiwan since 1995, when China fired missiles in a large-scale exercise to show its displeasure over a visit by then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the US
China also already flew fighter jets and other warplanes toward Taiwan and blocked imports of citrus and fish from Taiwan.
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 defence for democracy."
In Washington, 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 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."
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.