(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, North Korea has announced plans to send its nominal head of state to attend the event and South Korea’s liberal president expressed optimism Monday about sports bringing people together despite ideological differences.
But Vice-President Mike Pence is heading for North-East Asia with a different message, determined according to administration officials to undercut attempts by the Kim Jong-un regime to exploit the Olympics for its own propaganda purposes, at a time of growing international pressure over its nuclear and missile provocations.
“The vice-president is traveling to the Olympic Games in South Korea to reinforce the strong U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula and send a clear message of American resolve to the North Korean regime,” Pence’s deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, said when the trip was announced last month.
Last week Agen added, “No matter the circumstances or occasion, the vice-president will not hesitate to speak out against North Korea when they are being dishonest or deceptive in their practices and provocations against freedom.”
Underscoring that approach, Pence confirmed Monday that the father of Otto Warmbier – the American student who died just days after he was released from a North Korean prison and returned home in a coma last June – will be with him in PyeongChang, where the games open on Friday.
Pence tweeted: “Honored that Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, will join us” at the Olympics.
He added that Fred and his wife Cindy “remind the world of the atrocities happening in N Korea,” and recalled President Trump words during his State of the Union address last week.
“You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all,” Trump told the Warmbiers, who were among White House guests at the speech. “Tonight we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve.”
Trump in his address said that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
(A Pyongyang foreign ministry spokesman said the remarks amounted to the “screams” of a president who was “terrified” by North Korea’s power.)
While Trump was evidently referring to agreements struck by the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations – none of which held – “complacency and concessions” could also describe the approaches taken by the two “sunshine policy” presidents in Seoul, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008).
The current president, Moon Jae-in, faces a different environment, and has been somewhat more cautious than his fellow liberal predecessors in exploring options for engagement.
But in remarks at an International Olympic Committee session held in South Korea on Monday, Moon did sound an optimistic note, pointing to the hastily-arranged North Korean participation in the forthcoming “peace” Olympics.
“It was only one or two months ago that the voices of concern about the safety of the PyeongChang Olympics were raised throughout the world,” he told the gathering through an interpreter.
Moon said it had seemed impossible to imagine that North Korea would participate in the games or that an inter-Korean team would be formed.
“But such concerns are gone, and now our imagination has become reality.”
“Sports overcomes the barrier of ideology and politics,” he said. “Exchanging communication through sports is peace in itself.”
After three rounds of talks early this year Pyongyang agreed to take part in the games. North and South Korean athletes will march together under a symbolic flag of the Korean peninsula and will field a combined women’s ice hockey team.
Pyongyang is also sending a cheering squad and orchestra, and late Sunday informed Seoul that the delegation will be headed by Kim Yong-nam, the 90-year-old president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the country’s ceremonial head of state.
Kim Yong-nam would be one of the most senior regime officials to visit the South since the 1950-53 war that left the peninsula divided and still officially at war.
South Korean media noted that unlike other senior regime figures Kim Yong-nam is not blacklisted under international sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, and so would not be prohibited from traveling.
Some outlets even wondered whether Pence and Kim may meet, though thought it improbable.
“Given that Washington is entirely focusing on putting tough sanctions on North Korea, even an accidental encounter is unlikely to happen between Pence and Kim [Yong-nam],” said Joong-Ang Daily in an editorial Tuesday.
The Korea Times agreed an exchange was unlikely, since Pence “seeks to counter the North’s efforts to ‘hijack’ the Olympics with a propaganda campaign.”
Kim Yong-nam may hold talks with Moon, however. A spokesman for the presidency in Seoul said opportunities for dialogue were being explored.
Korea Times wondered whether the North Korean delegation head would be bringing a personal letter for Moon from Kim Jong-un.
“Moon, an advocate of engagement policy toward the North, is convinced that the thaw on the peninsula should lead to greater exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas and dialogue between the North and the U.S. as well,” said the Korea Herald.
But it noted there was skepticism both in the U.S. and South Korea about the “reconciliatory mood” created by the North’s Olympic participation.