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What did Pence achieve at the Olympics?

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Over the weekend, numerous conservative outlets and commentators in the United States fumed over what they claimed was overly fawning coverage of North Korea's delegation at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. They blasted the seeming excess of attention paid to North Korea's cheerleading squad and the memes that followed Vice President Pence's awkward non-encounter with the sister of North Korea's despot. And, like New York Post columnist Salena Zito, they moaned over headlines that seemed to exoticize Pyongyang's envoys and belittle Pence's own efforts.

But, as Washington Post columnist Dan Drezner pointed out, “the actual stories painted a mixed picture. CNN’s story, for example, caught most of the critical flak, but it had several paragraphs relaying ordinary Koreans’ decidedly mixed feelings about the DPRK charm offensive.” And reporters in South Korea — including The Post's Anna Fifield, a veteran chronicler of the abuses of the North Korean regime — observed that the visit of Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, genuinely did captivate South Koreans who didn't quite know what to make of the unprecedented visit.

As Fifield reported, South Korean television drew parallels between Kim and Ivanka Trump, a relative of the American leader who is also being dispatched to the Games as a beguiling emissary of her nation. “Most of all, Kim Yo Jong was an enigma” to South Koreans, Fifield wrote. “Just like them, but nothing like them. A woman with a sphinxlike smile who gave nothing away.”

At the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Feb. 9, Vice President Pence was seated near Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: YONHAP/The Washington Post)

For Pence, it was simpler: She was the head of a propaganda mission he militantly sought to avoid. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in attempted to use the Olympics to start a thaw with the North, the Trump administration had a much different agenda.

Before his arrival in South Korea, Pence vowed more sanctions and more pressure on Pyongyang. He brought along Fred Warmbier, the father of an American college student who died after brutal mistreatment while imprisoned in North Korea. He awkwardly skipped a dinner with Moon rather than share a seat at the presidential table with Kim. And at the climax of the opening ceremonies on Friday, as athletes from the Koreas marched into the stadium and their leaders rose to applaud, Pence remained pointedly in his seat.

“It would have been better if Pence had not come at all,” wrote David Meeks of USA Today, who described the scene as an “embarrassment” and a mark of disrespect to the South Koreans. “By declining to stand and recognize athletes of the Korean unified team as they walked together during the opening ceremony, Pence not only offended the host country, he sent a message that to the Trump Administration, not even common courtesy matters more than childish politics.”

If he did perceive Pence's stunt as a slight, Moon is walking too delicate a line to make a fuss — the two men still met up the next day to watch short-track speedskating. But it's unclear how such posturing furthers Pence's stated goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. And other details suggest the White House was more focused on ideological signaling than diplomatic grunt work: As my colleague David Nakamura reported last week, President Trump blindsided Seoul by highlighting North Korean defectors in the days before the Games started, while Pence's staff flubbed basic details such as knowing the name of South Korea's ambassador in Washington.

“I think it would have been really helpful to the conversation of denuclearization for the Pences to have appreciated the effort put into bringing team unified Korea into the stadium,” Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, told the New York Times. Pence's behavior, she said, marked “a new low in a bullying type of American diplomacy.”

So, at least during the past weekend, Pyongyang seemed to outplay Washington. “North Korea clearly appears to be winning the gold,” Kim Sung-han, a former vice-foreign minister of South Korea, said to Reuters. “Its delegation and athletes are getting all the spotlight, and Kim Jong Un’s sister is showing elegant smiles before the South Korean public and the world. Even for a moment, it appears to be a normal state.”

But the optics need not obscure the politics. The most important development of the weekend was the invitation extended by Kim Jong Un to Moon for talks. The liberal South Korean president reacted cautiously, saying that he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen.” He then joined Pence at the speedskating arena and followed that up by watching the joint Korean women's hockey team with the North Korean delegation. Moon's reticence was justified, observers said.

“This shows how desperate North Korea is. Experts say North Korea may see a drop in exports of up to 90 percent this year due to sanctions, which are unprecedented in their severity,” noted an editorial in Chosun Ilbo, a right-leaning Seoul-based daily. “The sanctions are the only reason North Korea decided to participate in the Winter Olympics, which means they hold the key to resolving the nuclear impasse. North Korea is trying all it can to weaken the impact of the sanctions. Moon must be sure never to fall into the trap.”

The White House may be similarly confident. In an interview with my colleague Josh Rogin on the trip back to the United States, Pence also signaled a willingness to hold preliminary talks with North Korea, albeit without dropping Washington's “maximum pressure campaign.”

“The White House’s endorsement of the concept of initial talks without preconditions is hugely significant,” Rogin wrote. “It provides a real fix to the break between Washington and Seoul. It also increases the chances the United States and North Korea will soon begin a process that represents the best hope of preventing a devastating international conflict.”

Beyond Pence's offer, though, the questions still abound. Would North Korea agree to talks? Can Washington and Seoul paper over the misunderstandings and unease? And how long might the offer stand in the volatile Trump White House? In a few weeks, after the Olympic moment fades, we may start to get some answers.

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