North Korean officials pulled out of an historic face-to-face meeting with Mike Pence during the Winter Olympics, the vice president’s office said Tuesday.
The VP was scheduled to meet members of the North Korean delegation, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, the nominal head of state, but Pyongyang backed out less than two hours before the secret gathering was due to start on Feb. 10, officials said.
Hours before the withdrawal, North Korean officials sent a message to Pence’s team saying they were unhappy with his attacks on the regime, but that the meeting was still on.
The proposed sit-down between the two countries, which have been locked in a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear ambitions, had not been made public until it was first reported by the Washington Post Tuesday. The meeting was agreed to prior to Pence’s departure from the U.S., after the CIA had been informed Pyongyang was interested in meeting Pence at the Games. It was scheduled to take place in the neutral grounds of South Korea’s presidential Blue House on the afternoon of the VP’s final day in the country.
President Donald Trump reportedly approved the meeting, at which Pence would have been tasked with delivering the administration’s demand that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons – without opening any negotiations with the regime.
The VP’s office said Pence would have delivered an “uncompromising message” about the U.S.’s demands, in line with its campaign to exert “maximum pressure” to further isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically.
The North’s cancellation came after Pence delivered a strident denunciation of its human rights abuses and announced a raft of new economic sanctions.
“Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting, or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down,” said Nick Ayers, Pence’s chief of staff.
Ayers framed North Korea’s decision not abandon the meeting as a sign that Pence had been successful in his mission to blunt Pyongyang’s attempts to use the Olympics for propaganda.
“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.
But as we’ve said from day one about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pence had been “ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs.”
“We regret their failure to seize this opportunity.”
Pence got close to Kim Yo Jong at the Games, sitting just feet away during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony. But he made a point of not engaging with the dictator’s sister, saying later it would have been inappropriate to do so.
“I didn’t avoid the dictator’s sister, but I did ignore her,” he said. “I didn’t believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any countenance or attention in that forum to someone who’s not merely the sister of the dictator, but is the leader of the propaganda effort.”
Cover image: Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (back left) watch on during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)