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Pence leaves for Olympics, aimed at increasing pressure on NK

US Vice President Mike Pence is expected to focus on ramping up pressure on North Korea by countering its charm offensives and highlighting the brutality of the regime during his trip to South Korea and Japan, dampening hopes for possible US-North Korea talks.

On Monday, Pence left the US on a six-day trip to South Korea and Japan. Pence is set to arrive in Seoul on Thursday, and meet with President Moon Jae-in, before attending the PeyongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday.

Ahead of his arrival in Seoul, Pence will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, where he is expected to reaffirm their commitment to the “maximum pressure” strategy and a united front against the North.

“We’ll be telling the truth about North Korea at every stop,” Pence was quoted as saying during his visit in Alaska on Monday by the Associated Press. “We’ll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that’s existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community.”

The two Koreas agreed to march under one flag at the opening and closing ceremonies and field a joint women’s ice hockey team during the Olympics through three rounds of talks last month.

US Vice President Mike Pence (AP)
US Vice President Mike Pence (AP)
Despite a rare rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula with the North’s participation in the Olympics, the US has been maintaining its “maximum pressure” campaign through sanctions.

As Pence embarked on the trip, White House officials reportedly said that his visit to South Korea is to stop North Korea from promoting its propaganda and “hijacking” the message of the Olympics.

Fred Warmbier -- the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after he was released from jail in North Korea -- will attend the opening ceremony as Pence’s guest, adding to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign.

He and his wife remind the world of “the atrocities happening in North Korea,” Pence said in a recent tweet. The Warmbiers have accused the Kim Jong-un regime of torturing Otto Warmbier, which ultimately led to his death.

Pence plans to meet five North Korean defectors on Friday in Seoul, Voice of America reported, citing an unnamed North Korean defector.

Pence will also visit the Cheonan Memorial, which honors the 46 sailors who died when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, according to the White House.

Last week, US President Donald Trump highlighted the brutality of the regime in his State of the Union address, citing stories of North Korean defector and amputee Ji Seong-ho. He also invited a group of North Korean defectors, including Ji, to the Oval office on Friday.

North Korea is sensitive about the international community taking issue with its human rights abuses, which it appears to believe undermines the regime.

Pence’s visit to South Korea has prompted interest in a possible US-North Korea contact on the sidelines of the Olympic Games. North Korea’s delegation to the games is headed by Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of the communist state.

Pence did not rule out the possibility of meeting with the North Korean delegation during the trip.

“Let me say President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meeting,” Pence was quoted as saying. “But we’ll see what happens.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also did not rule out the possibility of such a meeting.

“I think we’ll just see. We’ll have to see what happens,” Tillerson is reported to have said during a press conference in Peru.

Meanwhile, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol, who has served as a dialogue channel between North Korea and the US, remained silent about the possibility of a US-North Korea contact.

Questioned by reporters at Beijing Capital International Airport where he was transferring to a Pyongyang bound flight after flying in from Sweden, Han refused to comment on whether officials from the North and the US had met in Sweden and whether talks are possible between the two countries.

Foreign-policy experts here say that it is possible they make contact, but it is not likely for them to hold “meaningful” talks to resolve the nuclear standoff.

By Ock Hyun-ju (