Pence pouring cold water on warming ties between 2 Koreas
TOKYO (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence is pouring cold water on the warming ties between North and South Korea just as the two still-warring countries are joining up to compete together in the Winter Olympics.
Making his way to Pyeongchang to lead the U.S. delegation to Friday’s opening ceremonies, Pence has embarked on a set of symbolic visits designed to draw attention to the North’s terrible human rights record and nuclear aggression. With determined rhetoric — and the promise of more “aggressive” economic sanctions against the North — Pence is looking to refocus American allies on the North Korean threat.
“We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region,” Pence said Wednesday after meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.
Pence arrives in Seoul on Thursday for meetings with President Moon Jae-in just as South Korea seizes on the games for a diplomatic opening with the North, including the first visit of North Korea’s ruling family since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Aides say the vice president is advancing a counter message, using the games as an opportunity for the South and the broader international community to exert what President Donald Trump has termed “maximum pressure” against the North.
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.”
Pence’s strenuous efforts to highlight the threat from the North and its human rights record present a dilemma for Moon. The South Korean leader has long advocated engagement with Pyongyang and sees the Olympics as an opportunity to quell tensions that have escalated over its nuclear program. He has limited room to maneuver as his guest from Washington strongly criticizes the North and emphasizes the need to crank up the pressure campaign.
U.S. officials declined to offer details on the expected new sanctions beyond Pence’s comments, citing concerns that any additional information could be used by those trying to skirt the new measures. They are expected to be implemented before the conclusion of the games.
North Korea already is facing unprecedented sanctions after three U.N. Security Council restrictions in the past year that have slashed the pariah nation’s export revenue and capped fuel imports. Unilaterally, the U.S. has also targeted North Korean shipping companies and Chinese trading networks. A potential escalation of sanctions could be the U.S. blacklisting Chinese banks accused of providing North Korea access to the international financial system and facilitating sanctions evasion.
Administration officials said they had long expected the North would seek to use the Olympics, taking place just 50 miles from the heavily-mined demilitarized zone, 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.
Pence pledged that his message in any potential interaction would include the same point he has been making publicly: that the North must renounce its nuclear weapon and missile programs.