PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two-country swing through Asia earlier this month having agreed to a secret meeting with North Korean officials while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.
The cancellation also came as Kim Jong Un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon” — a development that would be likely to cause consternation in Washington, where the Trump administration has been leading a campaign to put “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime to give up its nuclear program. Moon said through a spokesman that he would try to make the visit to the North.
Pence’s actions and rhetoric in the run-up to the Olympics contrasted with the image of progress being promoted by the South Koreans, who would have been eager to involve the United States in direct talks with the North.
The vice president’s office promoted his trip as an effort to combat what it said was North Korea’s plan to use the Winter Games for propaganda purposes and portrayed the cancellation of the meeting as evidence his mission was a success.
“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics,” said Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, who also pointed to the events Pence held to highlight human rights abuses by Pyongyang. “North Korea would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum-pressure campaign. But as we’ve said from Day One about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
The vice president’s office said that when canceling the meeting, the North Koreans expressed dissatisfaction with Pence’s announcement of new sanctions as well as his meeting with North Korean defectors.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, in a statement Tuesday evening, said that during Pence’s visit, “the possibility arose of a brief meeting with the North Korean delegation leaders,” but at the last minute, the North Korean officials “decided not to go forward with the meeting.”
“We regret their failure to seize this opportunity,” Nauert said.
The meeting — which Pence had coyly teased en route to Asia, saying, “We’ll see what happens” — had been two weeks in the making. It began to take shape when the CIA got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence when he was on the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior White House official. A second official said the initiative for the meeting came from South Korea, which acted as an intermediary to set up the meeting.
South Korean officials declined to comment Wednesday.
Though Pence had agreed to the North Korean invitation before he left for Asia on Feb. 5, no details were set until the vice president arrived in Seoul on Feb. 8, according to the White House official.
The two sides agreed to meet at South Korea’s Blue House early that Saturday afternoon, Feb. 10, the official said. No South Korean officials were scheduled to attend, but the Blue House, the South Korean president’s official residence and office, was to serve as a neutral meeting place that could also accommodate the security demands of both sides.
Pence, a representative from the National Security Council, a representative from the intelligence community and Ayers were planning to attend from the U.S. side. The North Korean team was expected to include Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, as well as a possible third official.
At the White House, discussions of the possible meeting were kept to a small group of senior administration officials, and the plan was finalized during an Oval Office meeting the Friday before the vice president left. The meeting involved President Trump, Pence, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Ayers. CIA Director Mike Pompeo called in by phone, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were also part of the discussions.
The president and vice president were in agreement on the goal of the private meeting in Seoul: Pence was not to open any negotiations with North Korea but to deliver the Trump administration’s tough stance face-to-face, two White House officials said.
The administration also took it as a sign of the North Koreans’ seriousness that Kim sent his younger sister to South Korea, making her the first member of the Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War.
“The president’s view was that they need to understand that what our policy is publicly and what we are saying publicly is actually what we mean,” a senior White House official said, explaining Trump’s decision to greenlight a Pence meeting with the North Koreans.
White House officials said Trump and Pence had viewed the meeting as a continuation of the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign against North Korea, as well as in line with the message Pence had delivered, publicly and privately, throughout his trip.
Since becoming president, Trump has taunted Kim Jong Un with grade-school boasts about who has a more powerful nuclear button, dubbed him “Little Rocket Man” and promised that North Korea’s provocations would be met with “fire and fury and frankly power , the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Pence used his trip to the region to further underscore the administration’s combative stance.
At the Opening Ceremonies of the Games, Pence sat in Moon’s VIP box along with Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — with Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam sitting almost directly behind Pence. The vice president studiously ignored the North Koreans all evening, and photos of the uncomfortable tableau prompted headlines as well as private speculation about who, exactly, had won the propaganda war.
That Friday, before heading to the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, Pence visited the Cheonan Memorial, a tribute to 46 South Korean sailors who were killed in 2010 when their vessel was struck by a North Korean torpedo, and he met with four North Korean defectors, urging them to share their stories before the assembled news media. He also hosted Fred Warmbier — father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died last year after North Korea detained him for 17 months for stealing a propaganda poster, then sent him home in a coma — at the opening of the Games.
It was all part of Pence’s effort to cast himself as a warrior against North Korea’s propaganda.
Pence seemed to make a point of ignoring the North Koreans at the Opening Ceremonies, at a VIP reception and in Moon’s VIP box. The vice president stood to cheer the U.S. athletes when they marched into the stadium but remained seated when the North and South Korean delegations entered together under a united Korean flag.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency unleashed a torrent of vitriol against the vice president on the same day. “Pence must know that his frantic acts of abusing the sacred Olympics for confrontational ruckus are as foolish and stupid an act as sweeping the sea with a broom,” the agency said.
“If Pence wants to avoid experiencing a hot agony of shame on the stage of the Olympics, he had better stop behaving imprudently and clearly learn about how ardently the compatriots of the north and the south of Korea wish to reunify the country . . . and quietly disappear,” the report said.
Pence’s stony demeanor and ramrod posture at the Opening Ceremonies earned snarky reviews in the South Korean media, with some grousing that he had snubbed the North Koreans and even disrespected the Olympic Games.
The vice president’s team saw the matter differently.
Pence’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, tweeted a laudatory review of Pence’s evening: “VP stands and cheers for U.S. athletes. VP hangs out with U.S. athletes instead of dining with Kim regime. VP does not applaud N. Korea or exchange pleasantries w/ the most oppressive regime on earth.”
Another member of Pence’s staff explained the vice president’s stance this way: “I don’t think you talk geopolitics over speedskating.”
In fact, at that very moment, Pence was still planning to talk geopolitics with the North Koreans the next day and reiterate his week-long public message in private with Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam.
On the morning of Feb. 10, the North Koreans sent word to Pence’s team that the meeting was still on — but that they did not like his rhetoric, a senior administration said.
Then, just hours later, the North Koreans changed their minds, backing out of the meeting.
Pence then watched speedskating with his wife, Karen, and Moon before boarding Air Force Two to return home.
Anna Fifield contributed to this report.