SEOUL — The behind-the-scenes break between Washington and Seoul over North Korea has now spilled into public view. One day ahead of the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies, the two governments are sending out contradictory messages about whether the Games are the beginning or the end of engagement with Pyongyang.
Speaking before his bilateral meeting with Vice President Pence on Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated his clear desire for the upcoming meetings between South and North Korean officials to serve as a path to real negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and ultimately a deal to end the tensions that have roiled the Korean peninsula for decades.
“We certainly hope to utilize this opportunity to the maximum so that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games can become a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as well as to establishing peace on the Korean peninsula,” Moon said.
Pence, speaking after Moon, said nothing about the senior-level North-South interactions scheduled for Friday in Pyeongchang. Rather, the vice president reiterated his desire to continue the American-led campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Kim Jong Un regime.
A readout of the meeting provided by Pence’s staff also mentioned nothing about North Korea dialogue. “The two leaders discussed the importance of intensifying the global maximum pressure campaign on North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all,” the readout said.
Earlier Thursday, at Yokota Air Base in Japan, I asked Pence directly how he planned to deal with Moon’s public desire to build off of the North-South Olympic engagement. Pence said the Trump administration wants the warming of relations with North Korea to end when the Olympic flame is extinguished.
“We also reaffirm our commitment to continue well beyond the Olympics — when the Olympics are long a distant memory — to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically,” Pence said. It’s the message Pence has been repeating at every stop on his Asia trip; the Trump administration does not support a diplomatic breakthrough at this time.
Pence declined to say whether he thought it was a good idea that Moon is set to meet with two top North Korean officials Friday. Moon will have lunch with Kim Yong Nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un. Pence is being coy about whether he will meet any North Koreans this week. He has repeatedly said he hasn’t requested any meeting, and he won’t confirm that Moon is pushing the idea.
But if a U.S.-North Korea meeting does occur, Pence insists that his message to North Korean officials will be the same one he has been delivering all week, “and that is that North Korea must end this long era of deception, provocation, of developing nuclear weapons, threatening the region and the wider world,” he said at Yokota.
Inside the Trump administration, there’s another policy break. The White House message is consistent: Now is not the time for engagement with Pyongyang, and the North Korean charm offensive cannot be allowed to succeed. Pence and President Trump have spoken several times during his Asia trip.
Meanwhile, the State Department has been trying to find an opening for dialogue, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly contradicted the White House by saying that talks with Pyongyang can begin anytime with no preconditions. Ambassador Joseph Yun, who has been leading that effort, was also in Seoul this week.
Some officials believe that Tillerson is hoping to find a diplomatic opening and then to personally persuade Trump to take advantage, bypassing Pence and the White House staff. It was Tillerson, earlier this week in Peru, who first publicly floated the idea of Pence meeting with the North Koreans.
Moon’s Olympic diplomacy could provide the opening that Tillerson is searching for. In that sense, the State Department is more aligned with the South Korean administration than Pence and the White House.
Pence risks becoming isolated and appearing too reluctant to take advantage of an opportunity to pursue peace. That’s where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes in. A trilateral meeting between Pence, Moon and Abe is in the works but not yet set. Pence and Abe want to present a united front to Moon, arguing for a tougher line.
But what Pence and Abe may fail to realize is that Moon’s twin desires to have a successful Olympics and explore an opening with the Kim regime may trump his commitment to reaffirm the strength and unity of the alliance. Pence may also underestimate the damage that Trump’s treatment of South Korea since the campaign has done to Moon’s willingness to follow Washington’s lead.
The previously private break between the Trump and Moon administrations is being thrust out into the open. Unless that is addressed, the damage to U.S.-South Korean relations could ultimately be what survives after the Olympics end.