North Korea and the United States just made history during the 2018 Winter Olympics — and it was awkward.
At the Olympics opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence sat mere feet away from Kim Yo Jong, the sister and trusted adviser of none other than North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
That’s remarkable for a few reasons. First, Kim is the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to enter South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. It was already a huge deal that she would attend, as it possibly signals thawing tensions between the two Koreas.
And second, US and North Korean officials this high up the food chain rarely if ever get this close to one another — let alone in the midst of a tense nuclear standoff of the kind we’ve seen over the past several months.
So to have Pence and Kim sitting just a few feet away from each other — at one of the world’s most high-profile events, no less — is noteworthy. That said, there’s currently no indication that Pence and Kim exchanged any pleasantries on the balcony.
Check out the photo below: That’s Kim Yo Jong on the far left, and Pence is just one row in front of her and four seats to the right. Also in the photo are South Korean President Moon Jae-in (bottom left in the white coat) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (bottom right, next to Pence) — both close US allies whose countries are in the direct crosshairs of North Korea.
Can someone say awkward? This is how close U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Just one row and four seats separating them. pic.twitter.com/BvQLnFoYcf— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN) February 9, 2018
If you didn’t know better, you’d think that photo was of a bunch of friends just having a good time watching the Olympics together, instead of top officials from countries who have been engaged in a year-long war of words.
On top of that, Kim actually shook hands with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in early in the day. That’s also significant: Top South Korean and North Korean officials rarely interact with one another. But Moon wants closer relations with North Korea as a way to build peace between the two countries. That handshake might just be the start of a diplomatic opening that could lead to real dialogue.
So even though the United States may have literally kept its back turned on one of North Korea’s most powerful people, it’s good that leaders from the US and North Korea can at least sit cordially alongside one another.
Still, both countries have serious concerns about each other — problems even an Olympics viewing party can’t solve.