The White House publicly signaled for the second day in a row Tuesday that it would consider a meeting with North Korea on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a move that could help ease months of rising tensions and nuclear threats — at least for now — on the Korean peninsula.
Vice President Mike Pence said in Alaska that he has not sought a meeting when he gets to South Korea but “we’ll see what happens.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had used the same language at a news conference Monday in Lima, Peru.
Pence and Tillerson spoke to each other at least twice in recent days, and their statements were coordinated to send a message, according to a senior administration official.
“All it does is indicate that anything is possible,” said the official, who is accompanying Tillerson on a weeklong visit in Latin America. “They are in the exact same place on this issue.”
Pence will attend the Olympics opening ceremonies. A delegation of 22 North Korean athletes, performers and officials is expected to march under one flag with the South Koreans under a deal worked out between the rival governments. The two longtime adversaries also will field a joint women’s hockey team.
North Korea has not publicly responded to the U.S. offer, and the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough is exceedingly dim. But Pyongyang is sending Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s rubber stamp parliament.
Kim Yong Nam is reportedly the highest-level North Korean official to visit the South in years so even a ceremonial meeting with Pence could carry symbolic weight.
By offering to meet the North Koreans, the White House appeared to be trying to leverage the nascent and still fragile diplomatic rapprochement between the two Koreas, which caught the Trump administration off guard. Washington did not participate in the direct talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.
“Let me say, President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meetings. But we’ll see what happens,” Pence told reporters during a refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, on his way to Japan and South Korea.
As far as is known, no one from the Trump administration has met with a representative of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government over the past year. During that time, Pyongyang successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. East Coast, and tested a thermonuclear bomb far more powerful than its previous devices.
Some U.S. analysts warned that Pence’s outreach at the Olympics could backfire. .
“That’s fine for the Olympic spirit, but it’s doing nothing to get us toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Michael Allen, a former senior director on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, said in an interview.
The Trump administration may bring the overtures up later with the South Korean government when they want to stage additional military exercises or increase anti-missile batteries, Allen said. “One interpretation is that [the White House wants] to be seen as going the extra mile knowing that the talks would be fruitless,” he said.
Jim Walsh, a security policy expert at MIT, said he doesn’t expect Pence to actually hold talks with Kim Jong Nam or other North Korean officials, although a face-to-face greeting is possible. .
“That’s the sort of thing you traditionally work up to, where you have staffers and others talk so they can define the parameters for the discussion for what’s possible and what’s not,” Walsh said. “Or they meet and things go horribly badly and that sets up further miscalculation.”
Complicating the effort, the Trump administration still doesn’t have an ambassador in South Korea. Trump had nominated Victor Cha, a Korea expert who worked in the George W. Bush White House, but Cha withdrew his name to protest Trump’s reported willingness to consider a limited military attack on the North that aides called a “bloody nose” strike.
Trump has publicly whipsawed in his support for talks with Pyongyang, trading personal insults with Kim and tweeting on Jan. 2 that his nuclear button is “much bigger” than Kim’s.
Trump belittled Tillerson’s diplomatic outreach to Kim’s government in October, writing on Twitter that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” But last month, Trump said “absolutely” when a reporter asked if he would talk to Kim, adding, "Sure, I always believe in talking.”
Pence stopped in Tokyo on Tuesday to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and discuss what the White House bills as a “maximum pressure” strategy to cut off resources to North Korea. Pence will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul before attending the Olympics.
Pence plans to denounce the North Korean security state during Olympics broadcasts. He has invited along a potent reminder of the country’s abuses: the father of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after he was returned home in a coma after months in North Korean custody.
Pence said he wants “to make sure that North Korea doesn’t use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime. A regime that oppresses its own people. A regime that threatens nations around the world. A regime that continues its headlong rush to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and use those to threaten its neighbors and even threaten the United States of America.”
White House officials worry that Moon’s liberal government will make concessions to the North to maintain cooperation after the Olympics end. That could undermine U.S. efforts to convince China and Russia to cut off shipments of coal and equipment to the North.
The Trump administration has pressured countries to expel North Korean diplomats in an effort to cut off ways Pyongyang can obtain cash and technology from abroad to undermine sanctions. Peru, Portugal, Spain and the United Arab Emirates have booted out North Korean diplomats or cut diplomatic ties in recent months.