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US Vice President Mike Pence, North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's younger sister Kim Yo-jong attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. Photo: Yonhap

North Korea: US Vice-President Mike Pence was set for secret meeting with Kim Jong-un’s sister during Winter Olympics before last minute cancellation

US vice-president was to use meeting to deliver Donald Trump’s tough stance against North Korea face-to-face

US Vice-President Mike Pence departed for a five-day, two country swing through Asia earlier this month having agreed to a secret meeting with North Korean officials while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. 

But on Saturday February 10, less than two hours before Pence and his team were set to meet with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yong-nam, the regime’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence’s office.

The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence had used his trip to denounce their nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions against the regime yet, while also taking steps to further solidify the US alliance with both Japan and South Korea.

It also came as Kim Jong-un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon” – a development that would likely cause consternation in Washington, where the Trump administration has been leading a campaign to put “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime to give up its nuclear programme. Moon said through a spokesman that he would try to make it happen.

The vice-president’s office promoted his trip as an effort to combat what it said was North Korea’s plan to use the Winter Games for propaganda purposes and portrayed the cancellation of the meeting as evidence his mission was a success.
US Vice President Mike Pence watches the joint march by the athletes of both Koreas at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics as South Korea President Moon Jae-in claps, North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam waves and Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, claps. Photo: EPA

“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,” said Nick Ayers, the vice-president’s chief of staff, while also pointing to the specific events Pence held to highlight human rights abuses by Pyongyang. 

The vice-president’s office said the North Koreans expressed their dissatisfaction with Pence’s announcement of new sanctions as well as his meeting with North Korean defectors when cancelling the meeting.

The meeting – which Pence had coyly teased en route to Asia, saying “We’ll see what happens” – was two weeks in the making, and started when the Central Intelligence Agency first got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence when he was on the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior White House official. A second official said the initiative for the meeting came from South Korea, who acted as an intermediary between the two sides to set up the meeting.

US President Donald Trump and vice-president were in agreement on the goal of the meeting: Pence would privately meet with the North Koreans not to open any negotiations with Kim’s regime, but to deliver the administration’s tough stance against North Korea face-to-face, two White House officials said. 

The administration also took it as a sign of the North Korean’s seriousness that Kim sent his younger sister to South Korea, making her the first member of the Kim family to visit the South since the Korean war. 

Since becoming president, Trump has taunted Kim Jong-un with boasts about who has more powerful nuclear button, dubbed him “Rocket Man” and promised that North Korea’s provocations would be met with “fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”.

Pence used his trip to the region to further underscore the administration’s combative stance. 

At the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence sat in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s VIP box along with Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – with Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam sitting almost directly behind him. 

Pence studiously ignored the North Koreans all evening and photos of the uncomfortable tableau prompted public headlines and private speculation about who, exactly, had won the propaganda war.

Pence also only stood to cheer for the US athletes when they marched out, staying seated when the North and South entered the Olympic Stadium together under a united Korean flag.

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency unleashed a torrent of vitriol against Pence on Saturday. 

Communications Director Jarrod Agen tweeted a laudatory review of Pence’s evening: “VP stands and cheers for US athletes. VP hangs out with US athletes instead of dining with Kim regime. VP does not applauded N. Korea or exchange pleasantries w/ the most oppressive regime on earth.”

Another member of Pence’s staff explained the vice-president’s public behaviour with, “I don’t think you talk geopolitics over speed skating.”

In fact, at that very moment, Pence was still planning to talk geopolitics with the North Koreans the next day, reiterating his week-long public message in private with Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam.

On the morning of Saturday February 10, the North Koreans sent word to Pence’s team that the meeting was still on – but they didn’t like his rhetoric, a senior administration said.

Then, just hours later, the North Koreans changed their minds, abruptly backing out of their offering of a meeting. 

Pence then watched speed skating with his wife before boarding Air Force Two to return home.

Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specialising in the Koreas, tweeted that “it’s entirely possible that North Korea scheduled the reported secret meeting with VP Pence fully intending to cancel so that they could play the blame game.”

“Sudden cancellations/withdrawals are a well-established part of the North Korean playbook,” added Oba, now a speechwriter in Washington.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pence reveals how North pulled out of secret talks