North Korea bailed at the last minute before a secret meeting with Pence at the Winter Olympics

Matthias Hangst/Getty ImagesUS Vice President Mike Pence with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong during the Olympic opening ceremony on February 9 in South Korea.
  • North Korea pulled out of a secret meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence during the Olympic Games.
  • The delegates from North Korea were upset by Pence’s decision to meet defectors and for announcing new sanctions, his office told The Washington Post.
  • The secret meeting was locked in before Pence departed on his tour of Asia, contradicting the State Department’s claims that there were no plans for the vice president to meet with North Korea.
  • While the meeting didn’t happen, the situation highlights that the two countries not only have the ability to communicate but are doing so.

US Vice President Mike Pence agreed to hold a secret meeting with North Korean officials while at the Olympic Games, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The meeting was set to go ahead February 10, but the North Koreans pulled out less than two hours before. It was the same day North Korea’s visiting delegates, which included Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, met with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and invited him to Pyongyang for a meeting between the leaders.

“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,” Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, told The Post.

The vice president’s office told The Post that the delegation pulled out of the meeting because the vice president met with North Korean defectors and had announced new sanctions. Before reaching South Korea, Pence said the US would soon unveil the “toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.”

Ahead of his tour of Asia, Pence had not confirmed whether he would meet with North Korean officials, once saying only, “We’ll see what happens.” The US State Department, however, had explicitly ruled out any planned meeting.

“There are no plans to meet with any North Korean officials during or after the Olympics; I want to be clear about that. There are no plans to do so,” the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on February 6. “The secretary and the vice president said we’ll see what happens when we get to the Olympics.”

This contradicts the latest report from The Post, which said that the meeting between Pence and North Korean officials took two weeks to organise and that efforts began after the CIA received word North Korea wanted to meet with Pence.

Pence agreed to the meeting before leaving for his Asia trip on February 5. President Donald Trump; the White House chief of staff, John Kelly; CIA Director Mike Pompeo; Defence Secretary Jim Mattis; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were all reportedly involved in the discussions.

According to The Post, the purpose of the meeting was to convey the US stance on sanctions and denuclearization, rather than open the door to negotiations.

“The president made a decision that if they wanted to talk, we would deliver our uncompromising message. If they asked for a meeting, we would meet,” Ayers said in a statement to CBS News. “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. Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting, or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down.”

The meeting was set to take place at the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House, with Pence, a National Security Council representative, an intelligence representative, and Pence’s chief of staff meeting Kim Yo Jong and North Korea’s official head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

The Post said North Korea confirmed the meeting the morning of the day it was to take place but pulled out hours later.

“At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity,” Nauert told the news media on Tuesday.

“We will not allow North Korea’s attendance at the Winter Olympics to conceal the true nature of the regime and the need for the world to remain united in the face of its illicit weapons programs. The maximum-pressure campaign deepening North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation will continue until North Korea agrees to credible talks on a way forward to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”

North Korea and the US do communicate

TILLERSON KIMCBS/KCNA

The news of the meeting discussions shows that while the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations, North Korea and the US do indeed communicate.

Last year, Tillerson confirmed there were “three channels open to Pyongyang.”

It’s unclear what these channels are, after North Korea ended communication to the US via its mission to the United Nations in New York in 2016.

Ashley Parker, a reporter from The Post, said that South Korea initially acted as the intermediary for communications between the two countries but that they eventually “directly communicated.”

Just this week, Tillerson confirmed that the US had the ability to communicate with Pyongyang. He told “60 Minutes” that North Korea “will tell” him when it wanted to talk, because “we receive messages from them.”

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