TOKYO – When Vice President Pence visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea last April, he changed his plan at the last minute and ventured outside of the “Freedom House,” where he stared intently over the border into the North. I asked Pence the following day why he had made the move.
“I thought it was important that we went outside,” he told me. “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”
Now, 10 months later, Pence may take the opportunity of his visit to the Olympics in Pyeongchang to show the resolve in his face to North Korean officials in person. There are several clues — although no firm confirmation — that a high-level interaction between U.S. and North Korean officials alongside the Olympics is in the works.
U.S. officials traveling with the vice president offered no insight on whether a meeting will take place but didn’t deny some type of interaction is being contemplated. If it does happen, it would be the highest-level U.S.-North Korean “meeting” in many years.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicked off the speculation when he made cryptic remarks during a visit to Peru.
“With respect to the vice president’s trip to the Olympics and whether there would be an opportunity for any kind of a meeting with North Korea, I think we’ll just see,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Lima. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
Asked again to clarify, Tillerson repeated almost the exact same phrase: “We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
Pence was asked about Tillerson’s remarks during a refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska and used almost the exact same language.
“With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Pressed on the matter, he kept to his script, leaving the door wide open.
“Let me say President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meeting. But we’ll see what happens,” he said.
The similarity of their messages is no coincidence. Pence and Tillerson have been in close communication over the past few days leading up to Pence’s Asia trip.
Pence went on to say that no matter what the setting and no matter whom he meets, his message will be the same; Pence will tell everyone he sees in Asia that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile ambitions. Only then can North Korea rejoin the family of nations and offer its people a better future, according to Pence’s talking points.
“There is no shift in policy,” a senior administration official told me. “He’s not going to South Korea to negotiate. He is going to stand with our allies.”
The vice president also said that the goal of his visit was to make sure that North Korea would not be successful in hijacking the narrative of the Olympics. He intends to talk a lot about the reality of the situation in North Korea and the brutality of the Kim Jong Un regime.
Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, will be Pence’s personal guest for the Opening Ceremonies. Otto Warmbier was arrested during a 2015 tourist visit to Pyongyang, and according to his parents, forced to confess to stealing a propaganda sign from a hotel and later tortured in custody. He died shortly after being returned to the United States in a coma last year.
On Monday, North Korea announced it would send Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, to lead its delegation to the Olympics. He is considered the head of state, although all power resides with Kim Jong Un.
The South Korean government of Moon Jae-in has been pushing for more engagement with Pyongyang to build off of their Olympic cooperation, but a lack of consultation with the Trump administration has strained ties between the two allies. Pence and Moon will meet in Seoul on Thursday, the day before the Opening Ceremonies.
If a meeting happens, the South Korean government could use it to push for further engagement or even dialogue, something the State Department has been working on for months. But the White House has always been more cautious, more skeptical and more insistent that talks occur only on terms specifically defined by the United States.
The potential meeting is both an opportunity and a risk for Pence. His challenge will be to deliver a message of resolve while avoiding any concessions that would constitute a propaganda victory for North Korea. As is always the case with the North Koreans, what would happen next is impossible to predict.