SEOUL, South Korea -- Vice President Mike Pence pushed South Korea to adopt a more hawkish stance toward North Korea as he arrived in the country Thursday, ahead of the Winter Olympics.
At the same time, South Korea's president plans to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister and other senior North Korean officials when they visit the South this week for the Olympics, his spokesman said.
Pence met with President Moon Jae-in to advocate a clear-eyed approach toward his bellicose, nuclear-armed neighbor, warning against North Korean use of the games to paint a false picture of itself. Moon has looked to the games, which open today, as an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic opening with the North -- a move Pence cautioned against.
Welcoming Pence to the presidential Blue House, Moon took the opportunity to highlight the visit of the North Korean officials to the games, calling them "Olympic Games of peace." He added his hope that the visit becomes "a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Pence shied away from public criticism of Moon when they met Thursday evening, congratulating South Korea on hosting the games and pledging continued support in addressing the North's nuclear threat.
"Our resolve to stand with you is unshakable," Pence said.
But privately, officials said, Pence expressed concern to Moon about his more conciliatory tone toward North Korea.
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."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, the officials said Moon and Pence agreed that the goal of any opening with North Korea must be denuclearization -- even if there are differences in how they'd like to get there.
Aides acknowledged that the hard-nosed 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 from the heavily mined Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas, as an opportunity to put a softer face on its 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 Kim Jong Un, would attend the games, joining the country's 90-year-old nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
Kim Yo Jong would be the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the South since the 1950-53 Korean War. In 2000, her father, Kim Jong Il, held a summit meeting in North Korea with Kim Dae-jung, then South Korea's president, but did not keep his promise to visit for a second meeting.
She is to arrive today on a private jet to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang games, and will join Moon for lunch Saturday, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said.
It's highly unlikely that the luncheon will lead to an immediate breakthrough in international tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons development, but just holding such a meeting seemed unimaginable only a few months ago.
Kim Yo Jong has been an increasingly prominent figure in North Korea's leadership and is considered one of the few people who has earned Kim Jong Un's absolute trust. She was promoted by her brother last year to be an alternate member of the decision-making political bureau of the ruling party's central committee, which analysts said showed that her activities are more substantive than previously thought.
It remained unclear whether Kim Yo Jong would be carrying a message from her brother to Moon, who has said he is willing to meet Kim Jong Un if he is reasonably sure that such a meeting would help end the crisis over the North's nuclear weapons and missile development.
The two Koreas will march together in the opening ceremony and even field their first-ever joint Olympic team, in women's hockey.
Moon has supported U.S.-led sanctions against the North, but he has repeatedly called for dialogue. He has also been a vocal critic of any use of military force against North Korea, which is being considered as an option in President Donald Trump's administration.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry official seemed to rule out 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 today'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 leaving Japan 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 today with North Korean defectors as he pays respects at the Cheonan Memorial in Seoul, which honors 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 boat sinking 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller and Kim Tong-Hyung of The Associated Press; and by Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times.
A Section on 02/09/2018
Print Headline: Pence prods S. Korean to be hard-liner on North