SEOUL, South Korea – Vice President Mike Pence is trying to counter North Korean “propaganda” around the Winter Olympics with his own symbolism and rhetoric, shining a spotlight on the North's nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses.
Pence, who will lead the U.S. delegation to the games' opening ceremonies today, met Thursday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to press for a more clear-eyed approach toward the nuclear-armed neighbor to the north. Moon has looked at the games as an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic opening with North Korea – a move the vice president cautioned against.
Pence avoided public criticism of Moon, congratulating South Korea on hosting the games and pledging continued support in addressing the North's nuclear threat. But privately, officials said, Pence expressed concern to Moon about his more conciliatory tone toward North Korea.
Moon took the opportunity to highlight the visit of North Korean officials to the global competition, referring to the “Olympic Games of peace.” He added his hope that it becomes “a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Eager to put a reality check on the thaw in relations, Pence will meet this morning with North Korean defectors and pay respects at the Cheonan Memorial in Seoul, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to the North.
And Pence's personal guest at the games will be Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, an American who died last year days after his release from captivity in North Korea.
Before departing Japan for Korea earlier Thursday, Pence warned that past attempts to pursue openings with the North have been met with “willful deception, broken promises, and endless and escalating provocations.”
He 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.”