TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Japan on Tuesday at the start of an Asia trip that takes him to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, saying he had no plans to talk to North Korean officials but leaving open the chance of a meeting.
The United States believes North Korea, which has sent a team to the Games, is using the event for crude propaganda. As his guest for the opening ceremony on Friday, Pence is bringing the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and died in June 2017 from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.
Pence will also visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.
“The vice president will be there with Mr. Warmbier at the opening ceremony … to remind the world of the atrocities that happen in North Korea,” a White House official said on Monday.
South Korea, a close U.S. ally that hosts about 28,500 American troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, has welcomed the North Korean team, part of efforts to improve ties after the North conducted its sixth nuclear test last year and a series of missile tests, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In Geneva, the United States said on Tuesday that North Korea may be only months away from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, while North Korea said Washington was considering a pre-emptive strike.
The clash came at the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament days after the Trump administration said it would expand its nuclear capability.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said he hopes “something good” can come from North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games, but his advisers see North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s embrace of the Games as a facade of international goodwill and cooperation.
Speaking during the flight to Japan, Pence said he had no plans to talk to North Korean officials at the Games, but left open the possibility of a meeting.
”President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meetings. But we’ll see what happens,” Pence told reporters.
During Pence’s visit, Washington wants to keep the focus on the North’s disregard for calls to halt its nuclear program and convince allies to keep pressuring Pyongyang, officials said earlier.
However, there are tensions between U.S. scepticism and the optimism of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who wants to use the Games to improve relations with the North and open the door to eventual talks on its weapons programs.
Games organizers have picked up on Moon’s theme of peace and reconciliation.
“Through the participation of North Korea, the ‘Peace Olympics’ has been realized and this will lead a foundation to improve inter-Korean relations,” Games chief Lee Hee-beom told reporters.
In Japan, which has the biggest concentration of U.S. Marines outside the United States and is home to the powerful U.S. Seventh Fleet, Pence will visit a Japanese Self Defence Force Patriot PAC-3 missile battery, which would be Japan’s last line of defense against incoming North Korean warheads..
He will also hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Finance Taro Aso and will address U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo before flying to South Korea on Thursday.
North Korea’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, is also traveling to the Games this week, the most senior North Korean official to enter the South since the Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. Hundreds of North Korean officials, athletes, cheerleaders and artistic performers are also expected.
A North Korean ferry, taking advantage of a rare sanctions exemption from Seoul, arrived in the South on Tuesday, carrying a 140-strong orchestra which will perform near Pyeongchang and in the capital, Seoul. It was greeted by throngs of protesters, some of whom held large photos of Kim Jong Un with black crosses drawn through them.
Seoul had banned all North Korean ships entering its ports after the North Korean torpedo attack in 2010 – the event that Pence will commemorate during his visit.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday “we’ll have to see what happens” when asked whether Pence or other officials would meet North Koreans at the Games.
“The vice president most certainly is not seeking a meeting with the North Koreans,” a White House official said.
North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper described Trump in an editorial on Tuesday as a lunatic who was slandering the nation with talk of North Korean oppression.
“This is the intolerable, politically motivated provocation and tyrannical blackmail …,” it said in a commentary.