By Tim Kelly and Hyonhee Shin
TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Japan on Tuesday at the start of an Asia trip that takes him to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, saying he had no plans to talk to North Korean officials but leaving open the chance of a meeting.
Pence’s trip to South Korea this week will coincide with a visit to the Games by North Korea’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, the most senior North Korean official to enter the South since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
With the North Korean official’s attendance at the Olympics raising hopes of high-level inter-Korean talks, Pence stopped short of ruling out the prospect that he could meet senior North Korean officials, despite President Donald Trump having cast doubt on U.S. negotiations with Pyongyang anytime soon.
Speaking during the flight to Japan, Pence said he had not sought talks with North Korean officials at the Games but left open the possibility. “President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meetings. But we’ll see what happens,” Pence told reporters.
A White House official, however, cautioned against “reading too much” into Pence’s comment, saying, “He’s not going to South Korea to negotiate. There’s been no change in policy.” The Trump administration insists any future talks must be aimed at North Korea giving up its development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.
If Pence were to meet Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, he would be the most senior U.S. official to meet a North Korean leader since President Bill Clinton met Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, a special envoy of Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il, at the White House in October 2000.
The United States believes North Korea, which has sent a team to the Games, is using the event for crude propaganda, and U.S. officials say Pence is going there to try to counter that.
As his guest for the opening ceremony on Friday, Pence is bringing the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and died in June 2017 from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.
Pence will also visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.
“The vice president will be there with Mr. Warmbier at the opening ceremony … to remind the world of the atrocities that happen in North Korea,” a White House official said on Monday.
NORTH KOREA TO ATTEND GAMES
South Korea, a close U.S. ally that hosts about 28,500 American troops, a legacy of the Korean War, has welcomed the North Korean team, part of efforts to improve ties after the North conducted its sixth nuclear test last year and a series of missile tests, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In Geneva, the United States said on Tuesday that North Korea may be only months away from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, while North Korea said Washington was considering a pre-emptive strike.
The clash came at the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament days after the Trump administration said it would expand its nuclear capability.
Trump has said he hopes “something good” can come from North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games, but his advisers see North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s embrace of the Games as a facade of international goodwill and cooperation.
During Pence’s visit, Washington wants to keep the focus on the North’s disregard for calls to halt its nuclear program and convince allies to keep pressuring Pyongyang, officials said earlier.
However, there are tensions between U.S. scepticism and the optimism of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who wants to use the Games to improve relations with the North and open the door to eventual talks on its weapons programs.
Games organizers have picked up on Moon’s theme of peace and reconciliation.
“Through the participation of North Korea, the ‘Peace Olympics’ has been realized and this will lead a foundation to improve inter-Korean relations,” Games chief Lee Hee-beom told reporters.
In Japan, which has the biggest concentration of U.S. Marines outside the United States and is home to the powerful U.S. Seventh Fleet, Pence will visit a Japanese Self Defence Force Patriot PAC-3 missile battery, which would be Japan’s last line of defense against incoming North Korean warheads.
He will also hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Finance Taro Aso and will address U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo before flying to South Korea on Thursday.
A North Korean ferry, taking advantage of a rare sanctions exemption from Seoul, arrived in the South on Tuesday, carrying a 140-strong orchestra which will perform near Pyeongchang and in the capital, Seoul. It was greeted by throngs of protesters, some of whom held large photos of Kim Jong Un with black crosses drawn through them.
Seoul had banned all North Korean ships entering its ports after the North Korean torpedo attack in 2010 – the event that Pence will commemorate during his visit.
In a sign that tensions remain high between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper described Trump in an editorial on Tuesday as a lunatic who was slandering the nation with talk of North Korean oppression.
“This is the intolerable, politically motivated provocation and tyrannical blackmail …,” it said in a commentary.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey in WASHINGTON, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA and Karolos Grohmann in PYEONGCHANG; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Nick Macfie and Susan Thomas)