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North Korean officials abruptly canceled meeting with Mike Pence

The secret sit-down was supposed to happen during the Olympics.

2018 Winter Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony
Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong (back left) at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games.
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Vice President Mike Pence was set to hold a secret meeting with top North Korean officials who were in South Korea for the Olympics, only to see the North Koreans abruptly back out of what would have been landmark talks between the two adversaries.

Pence was scheduled to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong and to Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, on February 10. Instead, the North Korean officials canceled just two hours before the talks were set to start. The State Department confirmed the previously secret diplomatic wrangling, which was first reported by the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker.

“The Vice President was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. “At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity. We will not apologize for American values, for calling attention to human rights abuses, or for mourning a young American’s unjust death.”

The fact that the meeting almost happened in the first place may come as a surprise given the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward North Korea. As Vox’s Alex Ward has pointed out, the Trump administration had long indicated that it wouldn’t even entertain talks until North Korea had agreed first to give up its nuclear program.

Pence himself had doubled down on the aggressive rhetoric at the start of his trip to Japan, announcing the “toughest and most aggressive“ economic sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear program. And there was the awkward cold shoulder he gave Kim Yo Jong sister during the Olympic opening ceremonies — despite the meeting scheduled for the next morning.

Pence also declined to stand when athletes from the two Koreas marched together during the opening ceremony, a slight that angered his South Korean hosts.

Still, the vice president had been steadily dropping hints about the administration’s potential willingness to sit down with the North Koreans.

In an interview with the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin during his flight home from South Korea, Pence said the US would maintain its economic and political pressure on North Korea but was prepared to hold talks in the meantime.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” he told Rogin. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

The interview was published before news of the aborted meeting leaked out, but Pence’s comments take on new importance now that we know he made them a short time after he was literally set to talk to North Korea.

It’s unclear exactly why the North Koreans balked on the meeting with Pence, but the vice president’s office said the officials hadn’t been happy with his sanctions announcement or with his decision to meet with North Korean defectors.

The vice president’s office also spun the canceled meeting as a win for the administration.

“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,” Nick Ayers, Pence’s chief of staff, told the Washington Post. “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.”