On the 20th of February, US Officials confirmed that Vice President Pence had been scheduled to meet with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. Two hours before the meeting, DPRK officials cancelled.
Pence’s office has stated that Pyongyang withdrew due to Washington’s firm stance on North Korea’s human rights abuses and nuclear armament.
In 1945, colonial Japan withdrew from Korea and the country was divided into two halves along the 38th parallel. The North was occupied by the USSR, while the South was occupied by the United States. In 1950, the two cold war powers fought a proxy war when the North invaded the South. The invading army was driven out and an armistice was signed in 1953. No peace treaty was signed and Pyongyang and Seoul are technically still at war.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for years. North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 (atomic bombs), and twice in 2016 (reportedly hydrogen bombs). In July 2017, North Korea successfully test launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The state media announced that the first ICBM, which was launched on July 3d, was a “gift” to America.
Aggressive dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington has escalated tensions, particularly due to the incumbent administration. Trump’s feud with Kim Jong-un has included nuclear threats and promises that North Korean aggression would be met with “fire and fury and frankly power”. High level officials such as Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the UN, have also repeatedly stated that military confrontation is not off the table should the clash continue.
Most recently, there have been reports that North Korea has improved its cyber-attack capabilities. A private US security company reported that the developments will help Pyongyang expand its spying and information gathering capacity.
The Pyeongchang Olympics have been hailed as the “Peace Olympics”, due to its success at bringing together the two Koreas on multiple platforms. The two countries formed a joint women’s hockey team and marched under the same banner at the Opening Ceremony. Earlier this year, high ranking officials from the North and South reportedly engaged in talks, with the promise of more. However, tensions with the United States have showed no indication of thawing. North Korean officials said prior to the event that they had no plans to meet attending Vice President Pence.
On the 20th of February, US Vice President Mike Pence’s office confirmed that North Korea had pulled out of planned talks with Pence two hours before it was due to start. "We regret their failure to seize this opportunity,” said a state department spokesperson.
At the opening ceremony, Pence was seated a few feet away from Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s influential sister. However, he ignored her, stating that it wouldn’t have been “proper for the United States of America to give her any attention in that forum.” Pence was scheduled to meet Kim Yo-jong as well as the nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam the next day, to reiterate Washington’s position on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the Vice President softening his message,” Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers told media on Tuesday. Ayers said that Pyongyang withdrew from the meeting due to Pence’s intention to “stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
Pence was firmly anti-North Korea throughout his trip to East Asia. Before departing, he promised to counter North Korean attempts to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign. In a statement made in Japan a day before the Opening Ceremony, he discussed the United States’ intention to hit the North with the “toughest and most aggressive sanctions” until Pyongyang “abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all”.
On arrival in the South, the Vice President met with defectors, reiterating the US’ stance on Pyongyang’s human rights violations. Also travelling as Pence’s guest was Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto was an American tourist imprisoned by the North Korean government. Otto Warmbier died days after being returned to his home country in a coma, and has since become a symbol of the viciousness of the regime.
Leaving Pyeongchang, Pence said, "There is no daylight between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile programme."
Our assessment is that the “Peace Olympics” have been Kim Jong-un’s most clear indication that he is open to discussions. South Korean President Moon has indicated his willingness to participate in talks. However, open dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang will be highly improbable as long as North Korea’s nuclear program remains operative. As stated before, we believe that the North would feel more comfortable initiating conversations with the South than the United States.