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Pence leaves for Asia, focused on increasing pressure on North Korea

Vice President  Pence addresses the Republican National Committee  winter meeting in Washington on Feb. 1.
Vice President Pence addresses the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington on Feb. 1. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Vice President Pence departed Monday for a five-day trip to Japan and South Korea, a visit to Asia intended to focus almost entirely on rallying allies to ratchet up their pressure on North Korea, as well as directly pressing Kim Jong Un's repressive regime to stop its nuclear ambitions.

Even his final stop — leading the U.S. delegation at the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Friday night, and attending an Olympic event Saturday morning — has a clear geopolitical undertone: to combat North Korean propaganda amid the Olympic festivities, White House officials said.

Fred Warmbier — the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was jailed and sentenced to hard labor in North Korea and died upon returning to the United States — will attend the opening ceremony with Pence .

In confronting North Korea, Trump risks disaster

The trip, White House officials said, has two main goals. 

"The first one is that we are seeing unprecedented cooperation from the international community from the maximum pressure strategy targeting North Korea," said Jarrod Agen, Pence's communications director. "The vice president will deliver a message that the maximum pressure strategy is only going to intensify."

The second goal is to ensure that the Olympics don't turn into an opportunity for North Korea to burnish its image on the world stage. In January, North and South Korea agreed to try to resolve their tensions through dialogue, marking the first negotiations between the two countries since 2015 and frustrating some in the Trump administration as it attempts to take an even more hard-line stance against the regime.

"We're not going to let the North Korea propaganda machine hijack the messaging of the Olympics," Agen said. "The vice president will remind the world that anything the North Koreans do during the Olympics is a charade to disguise the reality of the oppression inside North Korea."

On Monday, when he stops to refuel at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, Pence will receive a briefing on the nation's missile defense system, setting the tone for the trip. Once in Japan, Pence plans to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including attending a banquet dinner with him Wednesday night, as well as speak to troops at Yokota Air Base on Thursday.

Democratic senators: Trump lacks ‘legal authority’ for preemptive, ‘bloody nose’ strike on North Korea

He will depart for Seoul on Thursday, where he will meet and dine with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Before the Olympics Opening Ceremonies on Friday, Pence will visit the Cheonan Memorial, which honors the 46 seamen who died when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean naval vessel in 2010.

Pence's trip, which White House officials said is expected to echo and amplify President Trump's message during his visit to the region last year, comes as the administration is taking an especially hawkish stance against Pyongyang.

Last week, the nomination of Victor D. Cha, the White House's original choice for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was derailed after disagreements arose over how aggressive to be in targeting North Korea if it does not cease its nuclear program. Cha, who served in President George W. Bush's administration, expressed concern to National Security Council officials about the idea of a limited strike on North Korea — a controversial option known as the "bloody nose" strategy — as well as about the administration's threats to exit a bilateral trade deal with South Korea. 

And in his State of the Union address last week, Trump rejected the "complacency and concessions" of past administrations against Pyongyang's "cruel dictatorship."

"North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland," Trump said. "We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening."

North Korea slams Trump’s State of the Union address

At his address before Congress, Trump also singled out Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who still keeps the crutches he used after a train ran over his legs when, as a starving boy, he passed out trying to steal coal from a rail car to trade for food. Ji pumped his crutches in the air in one of the most moving moments of the night.

On Friday, Trump met with a group of North Korean dissidents and defectors in the Oval Office, including Ji. 

Asked on a conference call with reporters Monday, in advance of Pence's trip, whether Trump's recent meetings and highlighting of North Korean atrocities could be considered its own form of preemptive propaganda, a White House official dismissed the suggestion. 

"I don't know how you could call it propaganda for the president of the United States to allow North Korean defectors in their own voice to tell stories about what life was like in North Korea," the official said, speaking on background based on the White House's ground rules for joining the conference call.

Trump meets with North Korean defectors in Oval Office in bid to raise pressure on Kim Jong Un

Pence, a former governor of Indiana, traveled abroad five times in 2017, including a 10-day trip to Asia and a surprise trip to Kabul, in December. When he was en route to Asia, North Korea attempted a missile launch, an effort Pence derided upon landing as a "provocation." He also visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on that trip.

This year, Pence made a four-day trip to the Middle East, with stops in Egypt, Israel and Jordan.