North Korea says no U.S. talks planned at Olympics as Pence lands in Seoul

Seoul, February 8, 2018 — North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media reported, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, arrived in South Korea on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.

Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

The ceremony will also be attended by a senior delegation of North Korean officials, including the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un and the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

The sister, Kim Yo Jong, and her entourage will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday afternoon, North Korea informed the South.

That delegation will have lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too,” the North’s KCNA news agency reported, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general at North Korea’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea… Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.”

Although the United States had not requested talks with North Korea, Pence left open the possibility of some contact although his message for denuclearization would remain unchanged.

Pence has said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” while South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.

Hinting at more engagement with Pyongyang, Seoul said it would be open to discussing resuming tours to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang once the security of tourists was guaranteed and conditions relating to North Korea’s nuclear program were met.

South Korean tours to the resort were closed after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean guard there in 2008.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters all sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.

“You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North defends its weapons programs as necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the war.

MILITARY PARADE

North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, its state media showed on Thursday, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.

Domestic media reports said the parade was smaller than those of previous years.

Kim Jong Un, in a black hat and matching coat, saluted troops while his wife walked beside him, television footage showed. One of Kim’s close aides, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yong Nam were also in attendance.

The North’s state media also showed what appeared to be short-range missiles on launcher vehicles.

Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he witnessed in Paris in July, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

Pence will meet Moon on Thursday. On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

SEATING COMPLICATIONS

The 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official and was blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.

“By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.

Pyongyang has yet to mention any change in their plans to send him, Seoul said.

The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped a series of sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programs, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, including a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.