Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday dangled the possibility of direct contact between U.S. and North Korean officials at the Olympics when he declined to shoot down a question about a meeting with Vice President Pence in PyeongChang.
“With respect to the vice president’s trip to the Olympics and whether there would be an opportunity for any kind of a meeting with North Korea, I think we’ll just see,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Lima, Peru. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
When a reporter interrupted to confirm he was not denying it, Tillerson repeated: “We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
State Department officials had previously ruled out the likelihood of a meeting between officials from the two countries at the Olympics, and Tillerson’s remarks were the first indication that one may be in the offing. For months, Tillerson has repeatedly said the United States is waiting for a sign from North Korea that it was willing to sit down for talks about its nuclear weapons program. At one point, he even said it would be sufficient to chat about the weather, just to break the ice.
North Korea, however, has insisted it is unwilling to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile program, which it considers a deterrent against possible U.S. aggression.
But the tension on the Korean Peninsula has ratcheted down a notch in the run-up to the Olympics.
North and South held talks to discuss Pyongyang sending athletes to compete in the Winter Games, and the two countries agreed to have athletes compete on a unified ice hockey team. The first North Korean athletes have arrived, accompanied by about two dozen officials, some of whom are almost certainly security to guard against defections.
The Games are providing an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough on the sidelines.
North Korea announced Monday that Kim Yong Nam, who as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly is North Korea’s official head of state, will lead his country’s delegation at the Opening Ceremonies on Friday. He would become the highest-level North Korean to ever visit South Korea.
Pence will head the U.S. delegation, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also will attend.
In Lima, Tillerson met with Peruvian Foreign Minister Cayetana Aljovín Gazzani on Monday and afterward acknowledged Peru’s support in the effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“Peru has taken significant steps in sending diplomats home and other steps to ensure that the North Koreans understand Peru’s stance on this,” he told reporters at a joint news conference.
Tillerson arrived Monday in Peru on a Latin American tour that takes him to Colombia next. Both are top producers of cocaine. Tillerson’s visits have been complicated by President Trump’s comment Friday that countries he did not name were “pouring drugs” into the United States, the world’s largest market for the drug.