Author: Cardiner Harris & Choe Sang-Hun

Posted on: THE NEW YORK TIMES | February 20th, 2018


Vice President Mike Pence had planned to secretly meet with a high-level delegation of North Korean leaders while he was at the Winter Olympics in South Korea this month, but the North Koreans canceled at the last minute, according to the State Department.

“We regret the failure to seize this opportunity,” Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

The canceled meeting is the latest twist in the evolving American strategy to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs, which Western intelligence agencies say will soon be able to threaten the continental United States.

It also adds a remarkable coda to the strange tableau during the opening ceremony of Mr. Pence sitting in a reviewing stand less than 10 feet away from Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, as the two stared fixedly ahead without acknowledging each other.

At the time, Trump administration officials explained that they would have been open to a meeting with their North Korean counterparts, but only if Mr. Pence delivered a tough message and only if it occurred away from TV cameras.

What they did not disclose then was that they believed both of those conditions had been met for an encounter already scheduled to occur.

“The vice president was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” Ms. Nauert said on Tuesday.

For much of the past year, the White House has used a combination of increasingly tough economic sanctions and blistering language — including threats of military action — to try to get the North to stop, and even reverse, its missile and nuclear development programs.

United States officials have publicly insisted that they would agree to talks with Pyongyang only if North Korea agreed beforehand to give up its weapons programs, a precondition most observers believed was a nonstarter for the country.

But in the administration, a fierce debate has raged about whether to drop the preconditions, and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is known to favor talks. About six months ago, President Trump referred to Mr. Moon’s overtures to the North as “appeasement.” Mr. Trump also dismissed Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s suggestions of dialogue with the North as premature or a waste of time.

But it was never clear whether the North itself was interested in talks, preconditions or no. Under President Barack Obama, repeated efforts at opening a back channel to seek dialogue were rebuffed by Pyongyang.

Past American administrations have rewarded North Korea’s decision to begin negotiations by providing food aid and some sanctions relief. But even if there are now no preconditions for talks, the Trump administration still insists that North Korea will not be rewarded for just opening a dialogue.

“We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk,” Mr. Tillerson said in a recent interview with “60 Minutes.” “We’re using large sticks.”

On Wednesday, the office of President Moon Jae-in refused to comment on the aborted meeting. But South Korean officials did not deny that they had encouraged both sides to talk. While Mr. Pence and Ms. Kim were in South Korea, Mr.

Moon’s government publicly called for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

During his visit to Asia, Mr. Pence did not rule out a possible meeting, but vowed to use any encounter with the North Koreans to drive home Washington’s demand that Pyongyang “once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.”

While Mr. Pence was reiterating Washington’s position, North Korea stole headlines in the South and beyond with a surprise message of dialogue and reconciliation. On Feb. 10 — the day Mr. Pence’s office said he was to meet the North Koreans — Ms. Kim made another surprise announcement: She invited Mr. Moon to visit North Korea for a summit meeting.

Some observers said the North’s charm offensive had won the day, while American officials appeared obstinate and overshadowed.

”The White House and State are clumsily attempting damage control after Pence’s poor P.R. performance in South Korea last week,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

“The Pyeongchang Olympics will be remembered as the best Olympic Games ever — for Pyongyang,” he added.

Mr. Pence’s meeting with the North Koreans was to occur after the vice president had warned that the country was about to face the “toughest and most aggressive” set of United States sanctions yet, though he did not detail what those would be.

Highlighting the difficulty of enforcing even the existing sanctions, Japan on Wednesday said its military had spotted a ship-to-ship transfer of goods at sea that it “strongly suspects” violates the current United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

The transfer happened on Friday, when a Japanese surveillance plane and an escort ship spotted a North Korean-flagged tanker alongside another, smaller ship in the waters between China and Japan, Japan’s foreign ministry said. The smaller ship was of unknown nationality, though photos showed it had Chinese characters that suggested it was an oil ship from China’s Fujian Province. There appeared to be hoses connecting the two vessels.

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