U.S. Vice President Mike Pence left South Korea Saturday saying the U.S. and its allies are more committed than ever to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.
“We are going to continue to stand together, along with our other allies and partners, to continue to intensify the economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea until they permanently abandon their nuclear, ballistic missile program,” Pence told reporters aboard Air Force Two on a return flight to the United States.
The vice president said he was “encouraged” by bilateral discussions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Moon’s talks with members of North Korea’s delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics, which included Kim Yo jong, the influential and younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
When asked if his commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea is personal because his father served in the Korean War, Pence responded, “The whole global community is committed, with a few exceptions, to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And I share that.”
Pence, President Moon, and top representatives from North Korea shared a VIP box at Friday’s opening of the Olympics, although Pence avoided interaction with the North Korean officials.
Pence and his wife, Karen, sat next to President Moon, in the same row as Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They both donned the red, white, and blue Team USA winter jackets.
The North Koreans – Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo jong – were also in the box, seated in a row behind Pence.
Kim Yo Jong is a key advisor to her brother. She is the first member of the North’s longtime ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
According to Pence’s office, there was “no interaction” between the U.S. vice president and the North Korean officials.
“He [Pence] could have sat with the U.S. delegation and avoided the box but he chose not to…knowing the North Koreans would be seated behind him,” said a U.S. official. The vice president wanted to show the “alliance was strong” by sitting with Moon and Abe. However, “If they [the North Koreans] had approached him (in the box) he would have responded,” added the official.
The vice president and North Koreans are not expected to interact Saturday during events in Pyeongchang, according to a second U.S. official. “I don’t think you talk geopolitics over speed skating,” the second official said.
The United Nations allowed the North Korean delegation to travel to South Korea for the Olympics, granting an exemption on sanctions against the repressive regime.
During the trip, Pence has kept up pressure on the north over its nuclear ambitions and human rights record.
Fred Warmbier attended the opening ceremony as the vice president’s guest. His son, Otto Warmbier, died after being returned to the U.S. with extensive brain damage he suffered while being detained in North Korea.
Earlier Friday, Pence traveled to the South Korean Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, to visit a memorial for sailors of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which was sunk by an explosion blamed on the North. Nearly 50 sailors aboard the Cheonan were killed.
“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies. But is also to stand up for the truth. And to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change,” Pence told reporters at a South Korean naval base before heading to the Olympic Games venue.
“They have to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They have to end the day of provocation and menacing. And frankly they have to end an appalling record of human rights that you heard first-hand today, the world community.”
The vice president also met with North Korean defectors while in Pyeongtaek.
U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that the vice president might meet a North Korean official at the Olympics. North Korean state media said Thursday there was no intention on the North Korean side for such talks to take place.
Pence said his team had not requested a meeting, but that if it did happen, he would continue his message that North Korea must entirely abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile efforts and will remain under pressure until it does so.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said South Korea is viewing hosting the Olympics as a way to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea. He has referred to the games as the “Olympic Games of peace.”
VOA’s Brian Padden contributed to this report.