WHITE HOUSE —
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence embarks on a trip this week to Northeast Asia meant to enhance his profile — he plans to visit as many as 10 countries this year — and to help counter North Korea’s charm offensive at the Winter Olympics.
“I think a lot of vice presidents in the past have gone ceremoniously to the Olympics and that’s what they do and that’s great. They cut the ribbon, check the box,” according to a senior White House official who recently spoke to reporters. “We wouldn’t be making this trip if that’s what it was about.”
Instead, Pence’s presence will be because of his “grave concerns” that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “will hijack the messaging around the Olympics. The North Koreans have been master manipulators in the past. It’s a murderous state,” the official said.
By being on the Korean Peninsula this week, Pence is “going to ensure that, from a messaging standpoint, that it isn’t turned into two weeks of propaganda,” the official said. “It’s speaking truth on the world stage, which is the opposite of what the North Koreans do.”
After he receives a briefing Monday about ballistic missile defense systems at an air base in Alaska, Pence will continue on Air Force Two to Japan.
In Tokyo, he will meet Wednesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will host a banquet dinner for Pence.
In Seoul on Thursday, Pence will hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with whom he will dine.
Administration officials say Pence’s discussions with Abe and Moon will be substantive.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke separately on the telephone with the Japanese and South Korean leaders Friday, mainly discussing the situation with North Korea.
Hours later, Trump hosted in the Oval Office eight escapees from North Korea.
On Thursday, Pence will attend, as the leader of the official U.S. government delegation, the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Others attending as official members of the delegation are Pence’s wife, Karen Pence; Army General Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. and United Nations forces on the peninsula; Brooks’ predecessor, retired Army General James Thurman; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce; Chargé d’Affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul Marc Knapper; and 2002 Olympic figure skating gold medal winner Sara Hughes.
At the opening event, South and North Korean athletes will march together under a common flag, displaying an undivided Korea.
The two Koreas are to also have a joint women’s hockey team for the games.
North and South Korea have no diplomatic ties and a state of war has technically persisted on the peninsula since a 1953 armistice brought to an end nearly three years of war that had the United States fighting alongside the South against communist forces backed by China and Russia.
The Trump administration has repeatedly vowed to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, describing the programs as a serious threat to the security of the United States.
Trump has belittled the North Korean leader as “little rocket man” and on Twitter boasted that his “nuclear button” is larger than Kim’s.
North Korea has responded with name-calling of its own, labeling Trump “a lunatic old man.”