PYEONGTAEK, South Korea (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence is trying to counter North Korean "propaganda" around the Winter Olympics with his own symbolism and rhetoric, shining a spotlight on the North's nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses.
Eager to put a reality check on the thaw in relations between the two Koreas in advance of the games, Pence met with North Korean defectors Friday and paid respects at the Cheonan Memorial in Pyeongtaek, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to the North.
During his meeting with the four defectors, including some who had been tortured and abused by the North, Pence warned that the world would see "a charm offensive by North Korea" Friday. "But today we thought it was important to make sure the truth is told."
"As these people and their lives testify, it is a regime that imprisons, and tortures, and impoverishes its citizens," he added.
Pence, who will lead the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremonies Friday evening, met Thursday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to press for a more clear-eyed approach toward the nuclear-armed neighbor to the north. Moon has looked at the games as an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic opening with North Korea — a move the vice president cautioned against.
Pence avoided public criticism of Moon, congratulating South Korea on hosting the games and pledging continued support in addressing the North's nuclear threat. But privately, officials said, Pence expressed concern to Moon about his more conciliatory tone toward North Korea.
Moon, for his part, took the opportunity to highlight the visit of North Korean officials to the global competition, referring to the "Olympic Games of peace." He added his hope that it becomes "a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The games will be attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister and other senior officials. And female ice hockey players from both Koreas will compete as one team.
Pence's personal guest at the games will be Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, an American who died last year days after his release from captivity in North Korea.
Before departing Japan for Korea earlier Thursday, Pence warned that past attempts to pursue openings with the North have been met with "willful deception, broken promises, and endless and escalating provocations."
He also ratcheted up his rhetoric on the North's human rights abuses in a speech to U.S. service members at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
"As we speak, an estimated 100,000 North Korean citizens labor in modern-day gulags," Pence said. "Those who dare raise their voices in dissent are imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered, and their children and grandchildren are routinely punished for their family's sins against the state."
Pence also has promised the U.S. will soon unveil "the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever."
Aides acknowledged that the vice president's cynical message is an unusual one for Pence, but said the circumstances warrant the tone. U.S. officials have grown increasingly dire in their warnings about the North's march toward developing an operational nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S.
Pence told reporters that despite disagreements over how to approach North Korea, the state of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea is "strong."
Administration officials said they had long expected the North would seek to use the Olympics, taking place just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the heavily-mined Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas, as an opportunity to put a softer face on the regime, and painted Pence's visit as a counterbalance to those efforts. At the same time, the vice president has deliberately left the door open to a possible encounter with North Korean officials expected to be in attendance.
On Wednesday, the North announced that Kim Yo Jong, the sister of dictator Kim Jong-un, would attend the games, joining the country's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam. A top North Korean official seemed to rule out a potential meeting with U.S. officials in the North's state-run media on Thursday, but Pence suggested to reporters that it was still a possibility.
"We haven't requested a meeting with North Korea, but if I have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions," Pence said.