Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday evening there is "no daylight" between the U.S. and South Korea, despite their different approaches to engagement with North Korea at the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. South Korean President Moon Jae-in had a luncheon earlier Saturday with the North Koreans, while Pence declined opportunities for contact with South Korea's neighbor to the north.
Moon provided Pence with a readout of the historic luncheon between the North and South. On the flight home from his Asian-Pacific trip flying somewhere over South Korea, Pence told reporters aboard Air Force Two that he appreciated Moon's transparency and perspective on North Korea, but reiterated that the U.S. and South Korea will "continue to stand strong and to work in a coordinated way to bring maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea."
"I leave here very confident that we are going to continue to do the things we know have to be done to continue to pressure North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions," Pence said.
The task of Pence's trip, designed to distract the world's gaze from North and South Korea's Olympic unification, proved too difficult to execute as remarkable images of a smiling Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, standing alongside Moon at the Blue House emerged from the day and dominated the airwaves.
North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam also partook in the historic luncheon with Moon. Asian media outlets quickly circulated photos of sprawling messages that Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam left in the Blue House's guest book.
"Working in unity on the way to unification," Kim Yong Nam wrote in the guest book. "Putting in real effort is our people's wish."
"The distance between Pyongyang and Seoul has become closer in our hearts," Kim Yo Jong wrote. "And I wish for a future of unification and prosperity."
Pence, meanwhile, had only one event on his schedule on Saturday: he appeared back at Pyeongchang to view the short-track speedskating event, along with second lady Karen Pence and the U.S. delegation. The other purpose for Pence's appearance was to see Moon for a final time, forging one more photo op of the two, in light of the events of the day.
Moon joined Pence at Pyeongchang's ice rink where they viewed the women's short-track speedskating together, and exchanged pleasantries and an embrace. Moon also greeted Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, who was seated behind him. Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea and died last year after returning to the U.S.
Pence and Moon were expected to view men's short-track speedskating together prior to the women's event, as an American and a Korean were competing against each other, but Moon kept Pence waiting and missed the event entirely.
Following his stint with the American delegation at speedskating, Moon attended a hockey game with Kim Yong Nam -- the nominal North Korean head of state -- on Saturday night. A senior White House official confirmed that Moon told Pence he'd be attending the game with the North Korean delegation. Pence did not attend the hockey game.
A White House official described the South Korean president as hopeful that there would be "some talks and socializing" between Pence and the North Koreans over the course of the weekend. But Pence's time sidestepping the North Koreans at the Olympics was punctuated by awkward, stoic photos and no-shows. A senior White House official described Pence's tact as ignoring the North Koreans, but not avoiding them. Pence was "there to stand with Japan and South Korea," the official added when pressed on whether the vice president had intentionally dodged photo ops with Kim Yong Un's delegation.
"The policy of the U.S. is the denuclearization of North Korea," the official said of Pence's approach to the Kim regime." The pressure campaign is not only going to continue, it's going to intensify until they denuclearize and that all options are on the table. I assume they knew that message was coming. So the question is, when are they going to hear that?"
On Saturday morning, after the opening ceremony, Pence tweeted his agreement with former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who had said on Fox News that the positioning of North Korea near South Korea at the opening ceremony was a "propaganda charade" by North Korea.
"Well said, @AmbJohnBolton. The U.S will not allow the propaganda charade by the North Korean regime to go unchallenged on the world stage. The world can NOT turn a blind eye to the oppression & threats of the Kim regime."
North Korean media slammed Pence what they described as "snobbish" behavior.
"It's the first time Mike Pence has been accused of being a snob," a White House official said in response.
Diplomacy and politics aside, the vice president's appearance at the Olympics was also personal. Pence's father, Edward Pence, was a veteran of the Korean War — he won a Bronze Star for his military service in 1953. Pence said that spotted signs throughout Seoul and PyeongChang that said, "thank you for your father's services for our country" that made him "a little emotional."
"My dad served in combat in Korea and he really didn't talk about it very much, like most combat veterans, but I know that it was a defining time in his life," Pence told reporters aboard Air Force Two. "I take great pride in seeing the extraordinary prosperity of freedom in South Korea and to know that the people of South Korea know that the American soldier won that for them — that's why there is no daylight and there will be no daylight — because the core of the bond between South Korea and the U.S. was forged in war."
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