Vice President Mike Pence suggested he might be open to meeting with North Korean officials while he’s in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin on February 9.
Such a meeting would represent a potentially major diplomatic breakthrough amid Washington’s ongoing nuclear standoff with North Korea, which has fueled fears of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions of people.
Pence’s comment follows similar remarks by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Peru just hours earlier. “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 during a news conference. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
This is somewhat of a reversal for the Trump administration. President Donald Trump time and time again has denigrated the need to talk with North Korea. But just last month he signaled his willingness to speak with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, although it’s unclear if the president would set conditions for a discussion. The administration has said in the past that it would not talk to North Korean officials unless they were willing to discuss ending the country’s nuclear program.
Days earlier, American officials said Pence would not meet with North Koreans while in South Korea. But when asked by reporters about a potential meeting with North Koreans on Tuesday, Pence said he had not requested a meeting, “but we’ll see what happens.”
If the vice president does take a meeting, it would likely be with Kim Yong Nam, a top North Korean official who leads the country’s 22-member delegation to the games. Pyongyang will send artists, athletes, and political officials in South Korea after negotiating their rare travel southward last month. Both countries will even march together during the Olympics’s opening ceremony and field a united women’s hockey team.
As of now, there is no indication that Pence will actually meet with Nam or anyone else from North Korea’s leadership, but the fact that it’s even under discussion has the potential to help Washington and Pyongyang walk back from the brink.
Pence will deliver a strong message to North Korea even without a meeting
During the trip, Pence said he would deliver a blunt message for the Kim regime during any face-to-face with North Koreans.
“We’re traveling to the Olympics to make sure that North Korea doesn’t use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime,” Pence said.
But Pence will use the Olympics for powerful symbolism. He invited Fred Warmbier — the father of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old US citizen who died in a coma after sustaining horrific brain injuries while spending 17 months in a North Korean prison — to travel with him to the games. His parents say he was “systematically tortured” to death, a charge North Korea denies. A coroner last September found no obvious signs of torture, however.
This comes just over a week after Trump invited the Warmbiers to his State of the Union address. The president noted what North Korea did to Otto during the speech while also highlighting the Warmbiers’ grief and resolve.
An unnamed US official told ABC News that Pence wanted to bring Fred Warmbier to South Korea to show the world the dangers of North Korea. Warmbier will sit with Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence during the opening ceremony.
Pence’s guest list for South Korea carries a very unsubtle message
Having Warmbier by the vice president’s side during a global event — just 50 miles away from the border with North Korea — is quite the act of defiance by both the administration and the Warmbier family.
But beyond freeing Warmbier, the Trump administration worked with Egypt to release Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, from captivity last April. And last October Trump announced the release of Caitlan Coleman, her husband, and their three children born in a captivity that lasted five years.
It highlights one of the biggest differences between the Trump and Obama administrations: the priority Trump has put on freeing US hostages abroad, and its recent successes in doing so.
In 2015 — six years into his presidency — Obama admitted his administration had at times failed families of hostages. “It is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” Obama said. “I promised them that we can do better.”
We don’t yet know what Trump has promised the leaders of countries holding Americans to win their release, but — in a rare burst of good news during a scary time — the president has had some wins.