(ATTN: RECASTS byline, headline, lead; UPDATES throughout)
By Song Sang-ho, Oh Seok-min, Choi Soo-hyang and Yi Wonju
SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States began a "two plus two" meeting of their foreign and defense ministers in Seoul on Thursday to discuss a coordinated strategy on North Korea, joint efforts to reinforce the alliance and other issues.
Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook joined their U.S. counterparts, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, for the first such gathering since 2016, as the Joe Biden administration seeks to rebuild its alliances after four years of uncertainty under former President Donald Trump's inward-looking "America-first" credo.
Blinken and Austin arrived in Seoul on Wednesday after a three-day visit to Tokyo as part of the Biden administration's first Cabinet-level overseas trip meant to reaffirm its priority to "reinvigorate and modernize" democratic alliances to tackle shared current and future challenges.
Hours before the symbolic meeting, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said Pyongyang will continue to ignore any contact from the U.S. unless Washington ends its "hostile" policies toward Pyongyang.
Choe's remarks came a day after Blinken accused the "authoritarian" regime in the North of "systemic and widespread" abuses against its own people, while Austin accentuated the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance in the face of "unprecedented challenges" from the North and China.
Policy coordination on the North is likely to top the agenda for the two plus two meeting, as the two sides seek to resume diplomacy with Pyongyang while deterring its potential provocations amid signs of activity at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Blinken has said that Washington's ongoing review of policy on the North -- expected to be completed in the coming weeks -- involves the evaluation of "all available options," including "pressure measures" and "diplomatic paths."
The two sides could also discuss ways to promote reconciliation between Seoul and Tokyo that have been caught in protracted rows over wartime history and trade, and trilateral cooperation among the three countries.
A set of China-related issues, such as alleged human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, are expected to surface in the talks, as the U.S. seeks to leverage its regional alliances to shore up its leadership against an assertive China.
The agenda may also include the envisioned handover of wartime operational control and joint efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and cyberthreats.
At the close of the meeting, Seoul and Washington plan to adopt a joint statement laying out the future direction of their alliance.
They will then initial a recently concluded deal on the sharing of the cost for the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea in a symbolic event to highlight the close-knit alliance.
Later in the day, Blinken and Austin will pay a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in.
This week's Asia trip by the two secretaries caps a weeklong campaign to highlight Washington's efforts to strengthen relations with allies and partners to promote a "free, open rules-based order," which started off in the first leader-level session last Friday of the Quad forum involving Japan, Australia and India.
Blinken leaves Korea later in the day, while Austin is to stay here until Friday.
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