|US Vice President Mike Pence meets a North Korean defector on Friday. (Yonhap)|
Hours before the two Koreas were to march under one flag at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, Pence met four North Korean defectors at a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in a torpedo attack by the North on a corvette named Cheonan in 2010.
Denouncing North Korea as “the most tyrannical regime on the planet,” Pence warned against the North’s “charm offensive” and highlighted the “cruel dictatorship” of the repressive regime during his visit to the Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.
Pence arrived in Seoul on Thursday to lead the US delegation to the Olympic opening ceremony, which was also to be attended by North Korea’s high-level delegation including its leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong and its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam.
“As people testified, it is a regime that imprisons, tortures and impoverishes its citizens and I can assure your witness of that truth will be heard across the world,” he said after meeting with North Korean defectors, according to the South’s Foreign Ministry pool reports.
Accompanied by Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier who died shortly after being released from jail in North Korea, Pence said that he was “inspired” by the bravery of the defectors and he wanted “the honor of meeting the men and women who fled the tyranny of North Korea.”
Among the defectors was Ji Seong-ho, who was invited to US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last week. A North Korean escapee, Lee Hyeon-seo, said in English that “the media is focusing on the Olympics, but they should be focusing on the people of North Korea, who are now struggling to survive the harsh winter.”
Pence arrived at the Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command at around noon and was briefed about inter-Korean maritime skirmishes near the Northern Limited Line, a de facto maritime border off the country’s west coast. He also toured the wreckage of Cheonan.
|US Vice President Mike Pence tours the wreckage of Cheonan during his visit to the South Korean Navy's 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek on Friday. (Yonhap)|
In front of the memorial, he reportedly urged Pyongyang to “permanently” abandon its nuclear ambitions.
“The simple truth is ... the time has come for North Korea to permanently abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, to recognize there is no future as a member of the family of nations for a nuclear-empowered North Korea,” Pence was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Pence also called the North’s military parade and display of its ballistic missiles on Thursday as “one more part of an ongoing provocation,” according to news reports.
Later in the day, Pence flew to PyeongChang to join the opening ceremony of the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games, with all eyes on whether Pence and the North’s delegates would meet each other on the sidelines of the Olympics.
Pence appeared at the reception hosted ahead of the opening ceremony by President Moon Jae-in, but left shortly afterward.
While the US maintains it will not engage in dialogue with Pyongyang unless the isolated country renounces its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea argues it will not hold any dialogue with the US if talks would be about abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
Amid the continued nuclear deadlock, South Korea has hoped to use momentum created by a thaw in inter-Korean relations as a chance to pave the way for dialogue between North Korea and the US beyond the Olympics.
On Thursday, President Moon Jae-in and Pence reaffirmed their alliance and commitment to the maximum pressure campaign on North Korea to bring it to talks on denuclearization through sanctions and diplomacy.
On his way to Korea, Pence said the US would unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” during his visit to Japan.
By Ock Hyun-ju & Joint Press Corps (email@example.com)