By ERIC TALMADGE
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — North Korea says it is not interested in meeting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence while he is in South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
With Pyongyang sending a senior delegation — including Kim Jong Un’s younger sister — rumors had circulated such a meeting could be in the works. A top Foreign Ministry official seemed to rule that out in comments carried by the North’s state-run media on Thursday.
“We have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea,” the official was quoted as saying. “We are not going to use such a sports festival as the Winter Olympics as a political lever. There is no need to do so.”
Pence was to arrive in South Korea from Japan on Thursday and move to Pyeongchang on Friday.
Kim’s sister, the first member of the North’s ruling family to ever visit South Korea, is expected to come on Friday just ahead of the opening ceremony. North Korea’s nominal head of state and senior statesman, 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam, is expected to join her.
The mood has hardly been conducive to any U.S.-North Korea meeting despite the proximity in Pyeongchang.
Washington has been stepping up its anti-Pyongyang rhetoric while North Korea has been trying to use the Olympics as an opportunity to ease tensions with South Korea. Some see Pyongyang’s conciliatory gestures toward Seoul as a calculated move to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its ally.
If that’s the case, it may already be paying off for Kim Jong Un.
In response to a North Korean request, Seoul has agreed to postpone annual military maneuvers with the U.S. until after the games are over and has asked for some sanctions to be waived so that more contacts and exchanges with the North can be made.
Pence, meanwhile, is taking a decidedly hard-line approach.
Before departing for South Korea, he announced the U.S. would unveil in the coming days “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.” Pyongyang is already the subject of wide-ranging sanctions and details of what the U.S. might target next have yet to be announced.
He is also bringing as his personal guest Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, an American who died last year days after his release from captivity in North Korea.
The North has denied mistreating Otto Warmbier, although what caused his death remains a mystery, and Pence’s decision to bring his father to the games is sure to be seen in Pyongyang as a very provocative move.
Even so, Pence and other U.S. officials seemed to be open to the possibility of a meeting, even if they were not actively seeking one.
When asked by reporters if he would be willing to have some sort of interaction, Pence had said “we’ll see what happens.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Wednesday that Pence is “quite capable of making the call” on whether to meet with North Korean officials at the Olympics.
With the North’s position now official, he probably won’t have to.