Two weeks ago, followers of geopolitics couldn’t help but speculate about the chances of a clandestine meeting between North Korea and the US when the news first broke that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Jo Yang, would be attending the Winter Games in PyeongChang.
After all, US Vice President Mike Pence was already confirmed to be stopping by South Korea during the beginning of the Games as part of a five-day Asia tour. But the White House was quick to repudiate this chatter, announcing that there were no plans for diplomatic talks, though both US and North Korean rhetoric since then has left the door open for such a meeting.
But as it turns out, just as the White House was denying it, plans for talks were being set in motion, according to the Washington Post, which reported Tuesday evening that the North Koreans backed out of a meeting with Pence at the last minute.
Instead, it appears as if North Korea calculated the maneuver as a way to exert maximum pressure on Washington, as the cancellation coincided with an invitation by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to begin talks with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in. Conscious of this fact, Moon’s response was noncommittal.
Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two country swing through Asia earlier this month having agreed to a secret meeting with North Korean officials while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
But on Feb. 10, less than two hours before Pence and his team were to meet with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence’s office.
The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.
The North Koreans attributed the cancellation to Pence’s rhetoric during a speech in South Korea, where he declared that North Korea is the most evil, repressive regime in the world.
“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics,” said Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, while also pointing to the specific events Pence held to highlight human rights abuses by Pyongyang.
“North Korea would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum-pressure campaign. But as we’ve said from Day One about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
The vice president’s office even confirmed that when canceling the meeting, the North Koreans expressed their unhappiness with Pence’s announcement of new sanctions, as well as his meeting with North Korean defectors.
Pence didn’t deny the possibility of a meeting when he left for Asia, saying “We’ll see what happens”, But even as the White House swatted away the suggestion, the meeting had been two weeks in the making, and started taking shape when the CIA got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence, a senior White House official reportedly told the Washington Post. A different official reportedly said South Korea had proposed the meeting and acted as an intermediary.
Though Pence had agreed to the North Korean invitation before he left for Asia on Feb. 5, no details were set until the vice president arrived in Seoul on Feb. 8, according to the White House official.
The two sides agreed to meet at South Korea’s Blue House – the home of the South Korean leader – early on the afternoon of Feb. 10, the official said. No South Korean officials were scheduled to attend, but the Blue House, the South Korean president’s official residence and office, was to serve as a neutral meeting place that could also accommodate the security demands of both sides.
Pence, a representative from the National Security Council, a representative from the intelligence community and Ayers were planning to attend as part of the US delegation. The North Korean team was expected to include Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, as well as potentially a third official.
Even if the meeting had taken place, it’s doubtful it would’ve let to a material breakthrough in relations. Pence was advised only to deliver the administration’s tough stance on North Korean denuclearization in person. He was not to make any commitments or even open negotiations.
The administration also took it as a sign of the North Koreans’ seriousness that Kim sent his younger sister to South Korea, making her the first member of the Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War. And the recent warming of relations between the two historically bitter foes – symbolized by a joint women’s ice hockey team fielded between the two countries – is a great disturbance to the White House, which has also recently begun to criticize the existing South Korea-US trade deal more vocally – a topic that was first mentioned by Trump more than a year ago.
News of the meeting paints Pence’s reportedly frosty demeanor during the Opening Ceremonies in a different light, as the Post explains.
Pence’s stony demeanor and ramrod posture at the Opening Ceremonies earned snarky reviews in the South Korean media, with some grousing that he had snubbed the North Koreans and even disrespected the Olympic Games.
The vice president’s team saw the matter differently.
Pence’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, tweeted a laudatory review of Pence’s evening: “VP stands and cheers for U.S. athletes. VP hangs out with U.S. athletes instead of dining with Kim regime. VP does not applaud N. Korea or exchange pleasantries w/ the most oppressive regime on earth.”
Another member of Pence’s staff explained the vice president’s stance this way, “I don’t think you talk geopolitics over speed skating.”
In fact, at that very moment, Pence was still planning to talk geopolitics with the North Koreans the next day and reiterate his week-long public message in private with Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam.
On the morning of Feb. 10, the North Koreans confirmed that the meeting was still on, but objected to Pence’s rhetoric in remarks he had delivered the day before.
Then, a couple hours later, they canceled.