Will the U.S. and North Korea meet on the sidelines of this month's Winter Olympics?
Both, Vice President Pence, who is leading the U.S. delegation to the games, have indicated that such a meeting is possible. And in a significant development, they both said "we'll see" when asked if the U.S. would engage in a meeting with the regime.
"A message was being sent," explained an administration official when discussing what Pence and Tillerson have said over the last 24 hours. "All it does is indicate that anything is possible."
At this point, the White House says Pence will not negotiate with North Korea and there is not something planned in terms of talks with the regime. Even a very limited interaction would need to be carefully orchestrated if the U.S. wants the results to be positive, say North Korean experts. Meanwhile, Tillerson and Pence have been in constant communication, having at least two discussions over the last few days while Tillerson has been visiting Latin America.
"President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven't requested any meeting," said Pence. "We'll see what happens. But my message, whatever the setting, whoever is present, will be the same."
The U.S. continues to press North Korea to quit developing its advancing nuclear program. And the White House stresses that Pence will be in South Korea as a staunch advocate for intensifying worldwide efforts to isolate North Korea.
Given the unprecedented levels of worldwide support for both diplomatically and economically isolating North Korea, Pence will seek to keep that pressure alive. His goal is to prevent the North Koreans, who are planning to present an image of goodwill towards the international community, from stealing the show.
There is clear coordination in the comments that Pence and Tillerson are making, with both at times using the same exact language. At the end of last year, Tillerson said that the U.S. would even talk to North Korea about the weather or the shape of the table necessary for future discussions. This comment demonstrated just how keen Tillerson is on advocating for diplomacy as the way to solve the North Korean nuclear threat.
The White House did not publicly say that they supported what Tillerson had said about diplomacy. Tillerson has since reiterated that the ultimate U.S. goal is bringing about talks that would lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
When President Trump invited North Korean defectors to his State of the Union speech late last month, he cast a spotlight on the human rights abuses of the Kim Jong Un regime and that of his predecessors. The Trump administration does maintain, however, that they are not seeking regime change in North Korea.
"North Korea can have a better future than the militaristic path, the path of provocation and confrontation that it's on. Better for its own people, better for the region, and better for peace," Pence said on his way to Asia.
There has been a period of calm in terms of North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches. Administration officials indicate that this is significant. Tillerson, however, is being careful not to commend the North Korean regime too early.
The last time the North Koreans paused their nuclear tests and missile launches for a significant period of time, Tillerson came out and publicly praised the Kim Jong Un regime. He said he was "pleased" Pyongyang had "demonstrated some level of restraint that we've not seen in the past."
"We need to see more on their part, but I want to acknowledge the steps they've taken thus far," Tillerson said back in August. However, less than two weeks later, North Korea carried out a nuclear test.
The U.S. has not told American athletes to stay away from North Korean athletes. And leading up to these games, the U.S. has supported South Korea in its conversations with North Korea about attending the games.