U.S. Vice President Mike Pence declined to rule out talks with North Korean officials while attending Winter Olympics events in South Korea, even as he urged the isolated regime to abandon it nuclear program.
“I haven’t requested any meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” Pence told reporters at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, before departing for Tokyo. “My message — whatever the setting, whoever’s present — will be the same. And that is that North Korea must once and for all abandon its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile ambitions.”
Pence said the purpose of his trip to Japan and South Korea was to make sure North Korea didn’t use event to paper over truth about its regime, adding that the U.S. would “be telling the truth about North Korea at every stop.”
He will be ready with some counter-programming when the two Koreas enter the Olympic opening festivities together under one flag. Beside the vice president in the stands will be the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died last year after being jailed in North Korea — a stark reminder of the cruelty undergirding Kim Jong Un’s regime, an administration official said.
The televised stare-down Friday will add to the drama at the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, as President Moon Jae-in tries to manage tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. During Pence’s week-long trip to Asia, Pence will also encounter friction between Tokyo and Seoul on North Korea and historical issues, as he seeks to counter the isolated regime’s provocations and propaganda.
While South Korea has eagerly engaged in talks with Kim’s regime, the White House has remained skeptical. The ongoing talks — and the decision by both countries to march together under a single flag during the opening ceremony — could be used by Kim to spread propaganda, officials have said.
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North Korea’s athletes came to South Korea on Feb. 1, with the rest of the delegation arriving later this week. Pyongyang will also send a cheering squad, reporters and an art troupe.
“They do want to send out strong messages to counter North Korea’s propaganda arm,” said Patrick Cronin, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific security program. “North Korea is made for propaganda — it’s a propaganda state in many ways. Look at the delegation that they’re sending — it’s not filled with athletes. It’s filled with celebrities and orchestras.”
East Asian Tensions
The North Koreans have sought to portray themselves as a rational nuclear power pursuing diplomacy while the U.S. stokes the flames of war. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho sent a letter to the United Nations last week asking the body to recognize “improved inter-Korean relations,” North Korea’s state-run news agency reported.
The letter accused the U.S. of seeking to make a preemptive military strike against North Korea, even as the country pursues diplomacy with South Korea and prepares to compete alongside its southern neighbor in the Olympic games.
Pence will also have to balance the delicate relationship between Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who approach the North Korea threat differently. While South Korea has dubbed the Olympics the “peace games,” Japanese officials have said they are skeptical of Kim’s motives.
“In general we welcome such atmosphere of the dialogue but at the same time our position is that we should be more realistic,” Takehiro Shimada, minister for Communications and Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Embassy in the U.S., said in an interview. “Because towards North Korea we have a long history of negotiations and we have experienced lots of betrayal from the North Korean side.”