South Korea president welcomes 'return of diplomacy' in first meeting with top US diplomat

L-R: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook in Seoul on March 18.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN)South Korea's President Moon Jae-in welcomed the "return of diplomacy and alliance" with the United States and reiterated the goal of denuclearizing North Korea, during his first meeting with senior Biden administration officials on Thursday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been in Seoul meeting their counterparts since Wednesday, after stopping in Tokyo, in the first international trip by Biden Cabinet officials since the inauguration.
Speaking at the Presidential Blue House, Moon congratulated Blinken and Austin on their roles in the new administration, and said he looked "forward to US leadership in the midst of complex crises."
    "Having been a partner for seven decades, sharing values and philosophy on democracy and human rights, ROK (the Republic of Korea) and the US will continue to act together on shared challenges, including a thorough cooperation for a complete denuclearization and permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula," he said.
      He also praised the "rapidly stabilizing" pandemic situation and vaccine rollout in the US, and said the two countries' alliance was "strengthening as the linchpin of peace and prosperity" in the region.
      Blinken echoed this sentiment, saying the US officials had good working meetings with their South Korean counterparts and had "a very strong work plan for the coming months."
      Earlier in the day, Blinken and Austin met with South Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook in a joint "2+2" session.
      In a joint statement, they said the alliance between their countries "has never been more important" in the midst of increasing global threats.
      They also affirmed that North Korean nuclear and missile issues are a priority for the US and South Korean alliance, and the two countries "reiterated the importance of maintaining joint readiness against all shared threats to the Alliance through combined training and exercises."
      US Secretary of State Antony Blinken bumps elbows with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in Seoul on March 18.
      North Korea had issued a statement on Wednesday and Thursday denouncing joint exercises between the US and South Korea.
      "We have a strong stance on improving human rights in North Korea and are trying continuously to make it better," said Chung in an interview with Korea's Yonhap News Agency. "We have explained to the US government that we need to make these efforts along with practical improvements inside North Korea."
      At the meeting, Blinken called on China to play its role in North Korea's denuclearization, saying Beijing and Pyongyang had a "unique relationship."
        "I think it has a shared interest in making sure we do something about North Korea's nuclear program and the increasingly dangerous ballistic missile program," Blinken said, adding that he hopes "China will use that influence effectively to move North Korea to denuclearization."
        Before South Korea, Blinken and Austin had visited Japan to meet with their counterparts there and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Next, Blinken heads to Alaska to meet with Chinese diplomats, while Austin will go to India on Friday.