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Pence’s Olympic mission: Countering North Korean propaganda

Vice President Mike Pence said Feb. 8 he would “seize every opportunity” to stop North Korea from using the Winter Games to as an opportunity for propaganda (Video: The Washington Post)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Vice President Pence was a man on a mission.

By the time he arrived at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games here Friday evening, Pence had already toured the Cheonan Memorial in Seoul, gazing up at mangled steel underbelly of a South Korean naval vessel, destroyed when a North Korean torpedo tore through it in 2010.

He had already met privately with four North Korean defectors, quietly nodding in support and shaking his head in sadness as he urged them to share their stories with the world.

And he had already spent two days in Japan, where he announced “the toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against North Korea and rallied the troops at Yokota Air Base against “the rogue regime in North Korea.” 

Before Air Force Two touched down Thursday at Seoul’s Osan Air Base, Pence had transformed himself into something of an anti-propaganda warrior — a mild-mannered, if resolute, superhero who arrived in South Korea on the eve of the Winter Games to single-handedly rebuff North Korea’s public relations efforts.

“We’ll continue to seize every opportunity to ensure that North Korea does not use the powerful imagery and backdrop of the Olympics to paper over an appalling record of human rights and a pattern of developing weapons and conducting the kind of missile launches that are threatening our nation and threatening neighbors across the region,” Pence said Thursday, just moments before departing for South Korea

Nearly every one of Pence’s actions during his five-day trip to Japan and South Korea this week — his public declarations, private murmurings and scripted meetings and visits — have been aimed at combating North Korea’s shiny propaganda with gritty talk of his own.

His aides repeatedly told reporters before and during his visit that Pence did not come to PyeongChang simply to bask in the cozy glow of the Olympic spirit and cheer on Team USA. They said the vice president flew for nearly 20 hours to fortify alliances against North Korea, further pressure Kim Jong Un’s regime, reiterate President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and fight propaganda with some no-nonsense spin of his own.

“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies but is also to stand up for the truth,” Pence said Friday in South Korea, shortly before heading to the Olympic festivities. “And to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change. They have to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They have to end the day of provocation and menacing.”

U.S.-South Korean relations fray as Olympics open

To that end, before Pence took his seat in the Olympic Stadium to watch the Opening Ceremonies on Friday evening, he first spent the day executing a careful choreography of U.S. counterpropaganda maneuvers.

He visited the Cheonan Memorial, a tribute to the 46 South Korean seamen killed by the North Korean torpedo. He listened to the stories of the North Korean defectors, praising their courage and expressing his gratitude.

And he invited Fred Warmbier as his guest to the Opening Ceremonies. Warmbier is the 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.

“Being here today, standing in front of the remains of North Korean aggression that cost the lives of 46 South Koreans, sitting this morning movingly with defectors who escaped that tyrannical regime, we believe is just the right message for the 17 days that lie ahead,” Pence said, explaining his plans to counter what he called the North Korean “charm offensive” during the Winter Olympics.

North Korea’s Olympics-related propaganda offensive has a two-pronged approach — belligerence toward the United States and an olive branch to the progressive government in South Korea.

Kim’s regime has been appealing to a sense of Korean brotherliness as it tries to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. On Friday night, for instance, athletes from the two Koreas marched into the Olympic Stadium under a shared Korean flag. Pence — who stood only to cheer for Team USA — remained seated.

South Korea’s progressive government, elected in May, made repeated overtures to North Korea but was rebuffed every time — until talk of a U.S.-led military strike on North Korea reached a fever pitch at the end of 2017.

 Then, on New Year's Day, Kim asked South Korea whether it would be interested in “detente.”

In the first round of inter-Korean talks that followed, Pyongyang’s representatives assured the South that North Korean nuclear weapons were aimed “only at the United States, not our brethren.”

This is part of a strategy to appeal to the South Korean government and try to expose the gaps between Seoul and Washington, said James Kim, an expert on U.S.-Korea relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea wants to engage, but they want to engage of their terms,” he said.

By underplaying a Thursday military parade and offering to send senior officials, including Kim’s sister, to South Korea, Pyongyang is pulling out all the stops to make nice with Seoul.

Those differences were on subtle display Thursday night during a meeting at the Blue House between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Pence. In his brief remarks, Moon expressed hope for an “Olympic Games of peace.”

“We certainly hope to utilize this opportunity to the maximum so that the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games can become a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.

Pence, meanwhile, seemed eager to buck up Moon to take a tougher stance against his northern neighbor. 

It is not just the gaps between Seoul and Washington that are being laid bare, but also the gaps between Seoul and Tokyo, with Washington in the middle. Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met earlier this week during the vice president’s first stop in Japan, an effort to send a strong message to South Korea that it should not stray from the “maximum pressure” approach. 

“It’s significant for Japan that Vice President Pence came here first, as Prime Minister Abe could confirm their fundamental stance of putting pressure on North Korea and show that they are united,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo.

Of course, as with most of his international travel, Pence’s goals were complicated somewhat by Trump. As the vice president decried propaganda such as Kim’s military parade earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that Trump had requested options for a massive military parade of his own in Washington. 

When asked, Pence rejected similarities between the two displays of military might. “I think in the United States of America, just as in France, where the president was impressed on Bastille Day, we can celebrate our troops and not in any way ever be associated with the provocations of the North,” the vice president said. 

 Michael J. Green, the senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the administration’s record on North Korea as mixed. He praised Trump’s tough rhetoric during his State of the Union speech and the White House’s expanded financial sanctions and other pressures, including Pence’s hearts-and-minds efforts here.

However, “the administration cannot get its story straight on military options, the president’s tweets are over the top and the White House still does not have an ambassador for South Korea,” Green said. “Taken together, these more chaotic dimensions of the policy are undermining the successes the administration has had mounting pressure and sanctions on the North.”

Once at the Olympics on Friday night, Pence found himself forced into an uncomfortable two-step with the North Koreans. First, Pence made a brief, five-minute stop at the VIP reception, which the North Koreans — including Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state — also attended.

A Pence spokesman said the vice president “did not come across” the North Koreans at the reception.

Then, once inside Olympic Stadium, Pence sat in Moon’s box — with the North Koreans, including Kim Jong Un’s sister, in the row behind him. But, a Pence spokesman said, there was “no interaction.”