North Korea: Cracks in U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance start to show

Pence at Olympics Opening Ceremony

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- The cracks in the trilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea — allies who've shown a united front in hopes of denuclearizing North Korea — are starting to show.

Vice President Mike Pence's tour, which was meant in part to counter the North's outreach to Seoul, has taken a back seat to the highly anticipated meetings between senior North Korean officials and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Pence's trip began in Japan, stopped in Seoul, and culminated with his visit to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony. 

Moon is expected to meet with Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong on Saturday at the Blue House. And on Friday, before an awkward trilateral photo spray with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Moon and Pence at a welcome reception in Pyeongchang's Olympic village, Moon met with North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam. 

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Pence and Abe arrived at the pre-reception together but were forced to wait for Moon in a separate room because they arrived late, according to a South Korean report. U.S. and Japanese press initially photographed the two without Moon. 

A spokesperson for the vice president said that Pence did not come across the North Korean delegation during the reception. However, Kim was spotted sitting only a few seats away from Mr. Pence's seat in the VIP box, where world leaders sat to cheer their teams on during a vibrant opening ceremony. Though Kim and Pence were sitting close to each other during the opening ceremonies, neither made a move to exchange pleasantries. White House officials briefing reporters travelling with the vice president said it would be fair to say that both Pence and the North Koreans rebuffed Moon's efforts to facilitate a meeting between North Korea and the U.S. 

On Thursday, sitting beside one another in the Blue House, claims of unity by Pence and Moon were belied by contradictory statements on engagement with South Korea's unruly neighbor. Pence made it clear that the U.S. continues its efforts to increase pressure on North Korea with economic sanctions, while Moon expressed the hope that the Winter Olympics might be "a venue that leads to dialogue" about denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula. 

Pence insisted, "There is no daylight between South Korea and the United States." 

After touring the grounds of the Cheonan Memorial with North Korean defectors and Fred Warmbier, Pence told reporters that Moon not only supports the latest round of sanctions against North Korea -- part of the U.S.'s "extreme pressure campaign," but credits the sanctions with forcing the imminent inter-Korean dialogue during the Olympics.

"And we talked about working closely together with South Korea as I did in Japan, ensuring those sanctions are faithfully implemented," Mr. Pence added.

Responding to Mr. Moon's optimism about where the North's Olympic participation might lead, Pence, once again, defined the conditions required for the U.S. to engage in dialogue with Kim Jong Un.

"President Moon and I reflected last night on the need to do something fundamentally different," Mr. Pence said. "And that is, demand at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations that the Kim regime put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs."

A Japanese official praised Pence for his strong words and statesmanship but declined to comment on Mr. Moon's performance Then, the vice president's tour around the Cheonan Memorial with Warmbier and North Korean defectors provided a sobering pregame to the Olympic opening ceremony's technicolored presentation of peace and cooperation. Kim Hye-sook, a defector who fled North Korea in 2009, reminded press covering the Olympics to remember "the millions of people who are struggling to survive in North Korea." 

For all Pence's efforts, though, the vision of a united Korea in the opening ceremonies was a powerful one for the bundled-up attendees, who gave standing ovations for the unified Korean team that circled the stadium under one flag.