And later Wednesday, Pence stood beside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and signaled the administration’s harshest sanctions yet on North Korea.
“I’m announcing today that the United States of America will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever — and we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program once and for all,” Pence said.
Pence did not provide any specifics, leaving those to the Treasury Department in the coming days. But the message was clear: On his five-day trip to Japan and South Korea this week, the vice president intends to be the administration’s one-man “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea.
During his first year in President Trump’s administration, Pence primarily took on a behind-the-scenes, supporting role. But now, the vice president is taking a more prominent posture, at home and abroad, and is using this Asia trip to help drive the administration’s hard-line policy on North Korea.
“You’re beginning to see more of the higher political profile in 2018, and it’s one Pence will have more distinctly,” said Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, who worked for Pence when he was a congressman from Indiana. “People know his close relationship with the president, and I think they know that he clearly speaks for the administration.”
On this trip, Pence plans to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan against Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime, as well as urge South Korea — which has been eager to open a diplomatic dialogue with North Korea — to take a tougher stance.
Pence will attend the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics as a ballast to counter Kim’s propaganda, and he did not rule out a meeting with officials from Pyongyang while on the Korean Peninsula.
“With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting,” Pence said during a refueling stop Tuesday in Alaska. “But we’ll see what happens.”
Speaking alongside Abe on Wednesday, Pence decried “the rogue regime in North Korea,” and said “the era of strategic patience is over.”
“All options are on the table, and the United States has deployed some of our most advanced military assets to Japan and the wider region to protect our homeland and our allies,” he said.
In 2017, Pence traveled abroad five times, with many of his trips serving as reassurance missions of sorts, to lay the groundwork for future visits by Trump or to explain to skittish allies the nuances of the president’s latest tweets or controversial statements.
During a February 2017 trip to Munich and Brussels, for instance, Pence tried to assuage concerns about the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security and the transatlantic defense alliance, even as Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete.”
On those early trips, Pence seemed to stumble into news as much as proactively drive it himself, as when North Korea attempted a missile launch as he was en route to Asia for his first visit to the region in April — a failed test he nonetheless dubbed a “provocation” upon landing.
But in the past two months, Pence has stepped more confidently onto the world stage. He made a surprise trip to Afghanistan shortly before Christmas to visit U.S. troops. The next month, the vice president — who was a strong advocate of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — made a three-nation, four-day trip to the Middle East.
Pence’s team is also considering at least three more in-depth trips abroad for the remainder of this year, one White House official said.
Domestically, Pence plans to focus a significant portion of his time campaigning and raising money for 2018 Republican candidates through his leadership PAC. So far, the vice president has written checks to more than four dozen congressional and gubernatorial candidates — a first-round list focused on Trump loyalists, and a second round to vulnerable Republicans who have supported the president’s agenda.
On the Friday before he left for Asia, he made a quick visit to southwestern Pennsylvania, to campaign for Rick Saccone, the Republican nominee in a closely watched March 13 special election in the state’s 18th Congressional District.
“In many cases, he can travel to a lot of the congressional districts with a calendar that allows it, whereas the president will probably be doing larger rallies,” Short said. “I think, obviously, he has a familiarity with a lot of the members, too.”
This week in Asia, Pence’s focus is helping the administration implement its pressure campaign, which Trump reiterated in his State of the Union address before Congress last week.
Pence invited Fred Warmbier — the father of Otto Warmbier, who as a U.S. student abroad was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea and died shortly after returning home in a coma — to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics as his guest Friday night. Earlier that day, Pence is expected to meet with North Korean defectors in another attempt to highlight the Kim regime’s atrocities as the North Korean delegation prepares to march under a shared Korean flag into the Winter Games.
The vice president’s meeting with defectors — with whom Trump also met last week in the Oval Office — is another signal that the United States is taking an especially hawkish stance against North Korea, said Evan Medeiros, managing director at the Eurasia Group and a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama.
“That’s a signal of the administration’s strategy on North Korea hardening, because when you start meeting with defectors, you’re starting to call into question the legitimacy of the North Korean regime,” Medeiros said. “That’s understandable, but that raises the purpose of the fundamental U.S. strategy. Is it regime change or just denuclearization?”
Pence, he added, in Asia and globally, also plays the critical role of “reassurer in chief.”
“He’s the careful, stable center who is meant to reaffirm long-standing pillars of U.S. foreign policy, and there’s no better example of that than alliances, so sending him to the Olympics in South Korea is a natural expression of that broader role that he plays,” Medeiros said. “The challenge he faces is the one that most senior U.S. officials face: People know that no matter what he says, Trump still does what he wants, so there are structural limits to how much reassurance he can provide.”
Pence hammered North Korea at nearly every opportunity Wednesday and touted the strong relationship between the United States and Japan. The only moment of levity — and distance between the two nations — came when Pence gently teased Abe about their competing loyalties at the Olympics.
“Later this week, I expect my wife and I will be cheering for a different team at the Olympics,” Pence said to laughter, “but I expect we’ll be agreeing on just about everything else.”