The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion After the Olympics, the real games with North Korea begin

Vice President Pence, center, Kim Yong Nam (North Korea’s nominal head of state) and Kim Yo Jong (sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) attend the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Friday. (Yonhap via Reuters)
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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For almost a week, Vice President Pence has been walking a fine line. He has been trying to beat back North Korea’s charm offensive while working to repair the break between the U.S. government and South Korea, whose leader is openly pushing for more engagement with Pyongyang. That challenge is set to intensify when the Olympics end.

The events surrounding Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang were a stark illustration of the larger diplomatic dance going on between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang. South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried hard to get the United States and North Korea together. Both Pence and the North Koreans resisted Moon’s initiative and avoided interacting with one another. The world watched intently for any sign of progress, but none emerged.

The focus on the U.S.-North Korea meetings (or lack thereof) ignores what was going on beneath the surface. Even if he had met the North Korean officials, Pence would simply have reiterated his mantra that North Korea cannot reap the benefits of being part of the community of nations while it threatens the world with its nuclear and missile aggression. Pence was not about to allow an actual breakthrough.

But Pence was acutely aware that by rebuffing a potential opening with Pyongyang, he was also rebuffing Moon, thereby risking widening the rift in the U.S.-South Korea relationship. Behind the scenes, Pence was working hard to preserve at least the basic framework of unity in the alliance.

Earlier Friday, Pence visited the wreckage of the Cheonan, the South Korean ship sunk by North Korea in 2010, and visited with North Korean defectors to highlight the brutal nature of Kim Jong Un regime. Standing in front of the Cheonan, I asked Pence whether he had been able to find common ground with Moon during their Thursday evening bilateral meeting and dinner. He said they had.

Pence claimed there was no daylight between the U.S. and South Korea on the goal of North Korean denuclearization, without acknowledging that they disagree on the path toward that goal. But interestingly, Pence also suggested that during their bilateral discussions he and Moon had agreed on terms for moving forward. They both agreed not to enter into negotiations with Pyongyang similar to those that have failed in the past, he said.

“President Moon and I reflected last night on the need to do something fundamentally different. And that is, demand at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations that the Kim regime put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Pence said. “Then and only then will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime that’s placed on them today.”

Officials told me this nuance was important. Pence is not saying no to negotiations ever. At the same time, he is not agreeing to negotiations now. The idea is, there will be no progress on negotiations without first seeing progress on denuclearization. What exactly would qualify as progress is left intentionally ambiguous. Meanwhile, sanctions will continue to be strengthened.

The North Koreans might want South Korea and the United States to make concessions if they accede to this basic framework, such as delaying the U.S.-South Korea joint exercises planned for April. Officials said that this was not possible but that Washington and Seoul might tamp down the volume of the exercises to keep the diplomatic path open.

That would give all sides at least a few months to see whether real progress can be made. Of course, if North Korea moves forward with new provocations — such as missile or nuclear tests — all bets are off. If North Korea won’t show real flexibility, the Trump administration will be off the hook and Moon’s diplomatic gambit will have failed.

But if Pyongyang plays ball, the Trump administration will be put to an unavoidable choice between sitting down with the Kim regime under what are sure to be imperfect circumstances or sticking to its demands and further alienating the Moon government.

To some, the fact that Pence didn’t interact at all with Kim Yong Nam, the head of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, despite being right next to them twice Friday evening represented a missed opportunity and snub by the Trump administration of close ally Seoul. Pence’s staff insists the vice president would have met with the North Korean officials if the North Korean officials were interested in meeting. It’s clear both sides decided it was not in their interest to go along with Moon’s wishes at this time.

Regardless, both Pence and the North Korean officials can return home and claim they did what they came to PyeongChang to do. North Korea got to join the Olympics and open real dialogue with the South. The United States stood its ground. But the diplomatic games have really just begun.