February 4, 2018 at 7:30 PM
Vice President Pence's Asia trip this week is meant to show solidarity with allies and help South Korea celebrate the launch of its Olympic Games. But he actually has a much tougher task: mending a potential breach with the South Korean government over how to deal with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un.
Pence departs Monday for Japan and South Korea, where he will lead the American delegation at the Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang. He is planning to urge Japan and South Korea to reject North Korea's scheme to loosen sanctions and split the alliance. The Trump administration is determined to make sure the Kim regime's Olympic charm offensive falls flat.
The spectacle of North Korean dancers performing and North Korean athletes competing should not divert attention from the brutal character of the regime or Pyongyang's strategy to undermine the pressure campaign, Pence will argue. "We're not going to allow North Korea to hijack the messaging of the Olympics," a senior White House official told me.
President Trump himself devoted time last week to that task. He hosted a North Korean escapee at his State of the Union speech and met with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office days later. Officials called this an orchestrated strategy to signal that after the Olympics, the U.S. pressure campaign is ramping up.
But the subtext of Pence's trip is the fact that trust between the White House and the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is at a low point, despite the successful Seoul visit by Trump in November. The source of the new tension is Moon's recent engagement with Pyongyang.
South Korea and the United States say publicly that recent North-South dialogue has been closely coordinated. But officials said privately that the White House was upset by a lack of consultation before Moon announced the talks in early January. They also disagree about the path ahead.
Moon holds out hope that Olympic cooperation can lead to further North-South engagement. The White House believes such engagement would mean further economic concessions to Pyongyang, undermining the bite of the sanctions.
"The great danger is that the South Koreans try a real engagement strategy and the United States isn't on board," said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Moon government, meanwhile, is concerned Trump is moving toward striking North Korea, perhaps without South Korea's permission. U.S. officials assure me that any real debate over military options is still months away, despite recent warnings of a "bloody nose" attack plan — but Seoul has it doubts.
"The South Koreans are feeling antagonized," said Jenny Town, Korea scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Pence's meetings are going to have to deal with the issue of whether the United States is really thinking about preemptive strikes."
It's no mere coincidence Pence is going to Tokyo first. He will huddle with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with the goal of presenting a united front to Moon when they arrive in South Korea. Part of the problem is that Moon and Trump don't have the close relationship that Abe worked hard to establish since Trump's victory.
Abe and Moon have their own issues. Moon has criticized an agreement Abe struck with his predecessor regarding Japan's apology for wartime atrocities. The Trump administration is encouraging both sides not to let that dispute distract from the issue at hand.
After Pence meets with Moon in Seoul, he will visit the Cheonan Memorial, a tribute to the South Korean vessel attacked by North Korea in 2010. Then, in PyeongChang, Pence, Moon and Abe will all meet briefly before the Winter Games' Opening Ceremonies. This is meant to show Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow that the trilateral alliance is intact.
Pence could soothe nerves in Seoul and allow Moon domestic political cover by assuring him Trump won't use force on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea's sign-off. The two leaders should also have a real discussion to agree on common red lines. Pence might also want to avoid issues that antagonize Moon's base, such as the KORUS free-trade agreement.
Moon could repair his relationship with the White House by reaffirming his commitment to the "maximum pressure" approach and assuring Pence he won't cut any more deals with the Kim regime. He should also be open to responsible contingency planning just in case conflict does break out.
After the Olympic flame is extinguished, the next phase of the North Korea crisis begins in earnest. The United States and South Korea need to come together to properly confront the threat to both nations.