Pence to push S. Korea toward more hawkish N. Korea policy
SEOUL, South Korea — Vice President Mike Pence is pushing South Korea to adopt a more hawkish stance toward the North, as he arrived in the country Thursday ahead of the Winter Olympics.
Pence met with President Moon Jae-in to advocate a clear-eyed approach toward his bellicose, nuclear-armed neighbor, warning against North Korean "propaganda" around the games. Athletes from both Koreas will compete as one team in the games opening Friday that senior officials from the North will attend. Moon has looked to the games as an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic opening with the North — a move Pence will seek to caution against.
Welcoming Pence to the Blue House, Moon took the opportunity to highlight the visit of North Korean officials to the games, calling them "Olympic Games of peace." He added his hopes that it becomes "a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Pence publicly shied away from criticism of Moon when the pair met Thursday evening, congratulating South Korea on hosting the games and pledging continued support to address the North's nuclear threat.
"Our resolve to stand with you is unshakable," Pence said.
Pence warned before departing Japan earlier Thursday that past attempts to pursue openings with the North have been met with "willful deception, broken promises, and endless and escalating provocations."
Aides acknowledged that the cynical message is an unusual one for the affable Pence, but said the circumstances warrant the tone. U.S. officials have grown increasingly dire in their warnings about the North's march toward developing an operational nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S.
Pence told reporters that despite disagreements over how to approach North Korea, the state of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea is "strong."
Administration officials said they had long expected the North would seek to use the Olympics, taking place just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the heavily-mined Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas, as an opportunity to put a softer face on the regime, and painted Pence's visit as a counterbalance to those efforts. At the same time, the vice president has deliberately left the door open to a possible encounter with North Korean officials expected to be in attendance.
On Wednesday, the North announced that Kim Yo Jong, the sister of dictator Kim Jong-un, would attend the games, joining the country's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam. A top North Korean official seemed to rule a potential meeting with U.S. officials in the North's state-run media on Thursday, but Pence suggested to reporters that it was still a possibility.
"We haven't requested a meeting with North Korea, but if I have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions," Pence said.
Pence traveled to South Korea to lead the U.S. delegation to Friday's opening ceremonies, but has used his trip to participate in symbolic events meant to shine a spotlight on North Korea's nuclear program and human rights abuses.
Before departing for Korea, Pence announced that the U.S. would unveil in coming days "the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever."
He also ratcheted up his rhetoric on the North's human rights abuses in a speech to U.S. service members at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
"As we speak, an estimated 100,000 North Korean citizens labor in modern-day gulags," Pence said. "Those who dare raise their voices in dissent are imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered, and their children and grandchildren are routinely punished for their family's sins against the state."
Pence will meet Friday morning with North Korean defectors as he pays respects at the Cheonan Memorial in Seoul, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to the North.
Pence's personal guest at the games will be Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, an American who died last year days after his release from captivity in North Korea.
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