Weeks after Pence visit, White House still wants last word on North Korea and Olympics

Mike Pence has long since returned from his recent Asian voyage, which included a stop in PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympics. While in South Korea, he drew headlines for not interacting with members of a North Korean delegation at the Opening Ceremony, and appearing only briefly at a reception before it.

Almost two weeks later, that story is still not dead.

Pence explicitly said upon his return that he chose to “ignore” North Korean leaders in PyeongChang. He painted it as a noble rebuke of the “evil” regime after reiterating the United States’ hard-line stance on sanctions against it. A week later, now the White House says it was North Korea that backed out of a meeting with Pence and the U.S. delegation.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Pence had been set to meet with Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, and Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister. But two hours before the scheduled meeting on the day after the Opening Ceremony, according to the White House, North Korean officials “decided not to go forward with the meeting.”

United States Vice President Mike Pence (front left) was seated in front of North Korea’s head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the 2018 Olympic Opening Ceremony. (Getty)

Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, also released a statement on the meeting that fell through.

“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics,” Ayers said, referencing Pence’s promise of “aggressive” sanctions and backing his accusation that North Korea would “hijack” the Olympics for political purposes.

“North ­Korea would have strongly ­preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the ­maximum-pressure campaign,” Ayers said. “But as we’ve said from Day One about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”

Pence and others have been critical of North Korea’s “charm offensive” at the Olympics. Examples of amicable relations between North and South Korea have been covered extensively by international media. Many have accused the North of sending a delegation to the Games less to actually improve Korean relations and more to trumpet those stories, essentially as propaganda.

That was one of the reasons Pence gave for ignoring “the dictator’s sister.” Last Wednesday he explained: “I didn’t believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any countenance or attention in that forum to someone who’s not merely the sister of the dictator but is the leader of the propaganda effort.”

A week later, the White House used a report of the nixed meeting to issue more strongly worded statements on North Korea’s appearance at the Olympics.

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