BY: ANDY LAUB
U.S Vice President Mike Pence arrived last weekend at the Pyeongchang Olympics maintaining the Trump administrations’ hardline on North Korea. The US has sustained its strategy of maximum pressure and sanctions, even as it has failed to slow the progression of the North’s nuclear program. Pence met with North Korean defectors and brought as his guest Fred Warmbier, the father of the late Otto Warmbier, who tragically died after being held in a North Korean prison. Something unexpected happened while the Vice President was on his way to the games: North Korea announced it would be sending Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister Kim Yo-Jong to lead the North Korean delegation at the opening ceremony. Pence, frustrated he was being eclipsed by her in the media, announced in Japan that “We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games.” Things got even more uncomfortable for the Vice President as Kim Yo-Jong was seated right behind him in the VIP section at the Olympics opening ceremony. Pence did everything he could to avoid any kind of encounter with the North Korean leader’s powerful sister, including skipping an opening dinner being hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-In. He went so far as to refuse to stand or clap for the most anticipated part of the night when the inter-Korean teams marched in together under one unified flag, drawing lots of criticism that he was being disrespectful to the Olympics host, President Moon, a key U.S ally. Meanwhile Kim Yo-Jong continued to steal the show; her seemingly personable approach drew positive media attention along with South Korean fans when she stopped by the hockey game to cheer on the unified team Korea. She was her brother’s “good cop to his bad cop” and “gave authoritarianism a nice face” were just some of the comments in media analysis. It was the first time a powerful North Korean had been to South Korea; she met with South Korean President Moon at his residence, the Blue House, where she delivered a personal message from her brother- inviting President Moon to Pyongyang, North Korea for an inter-Korean summit. President Moon, a progressive, ran on the platform of dialogue with the North. While he hasn’t officially accepted yet, all indications are that he will putting him at odds with Washington’s strategy, which brought an about face from Vice President Pence on his way home, saying that the administration now supported direct talks with North Korea. “If they want to talk we will talk,” Mr. Pence asserted, when all he had to do just a few days earlier was turn around.
Conservatives in the United States were not happy with the fawning coverage of Kim Yo-Jong feeling the need to remind people of the brutality of the North Korean regime she was representing. The fact of the matter is that this was never about Kim Yo-Jong. Even though many people have differing views on foreign policy, you would be hard pressed to find many closet fans of the North Korean regime in the United States or even around the world. Their human rights abuses and the danger their nuclear weapons program poses are well known. The real question, which should be asked, is what enabled favorable coverage for Ms. Kim? The answer is simple- the lack of leadership and mixed messages from the Trump administration that have eroded U.S. credibility as demonstrated by Mike Pence’s behavior at the Olympics. The time is long overdue to revisit diplomacy between the United States and North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. President Moon has taken the right approach by his attempted engagement. President Trump’s abdication of U.S global leadership and fiery rhetoric on North Korea on the other hand has made things only harder and more dangerous. He has talked of a so called “bloody nose” strategy that involves limited air strikes against North Korea’s nuclear program, a completely reckless idea that would do little to set back the North’s nuclear program while forcing the unpredictable young dictator to respond aggressively. This vacuum of leadership allowed for Kim Jong-Un to exploit the situation by engaging with the South directly, driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, showing the United States was not needed for such high level diplomacy to take place. With his behavior at the Olympics, Mike Pence played right into that strategy.
Had Vice President Pence simply turned around to shake hands and say hello to Kim Yo-Jong, it could have provided a critical olive branch to get diplomatic talks going on the right foot. Despite the school of thinking Pence comes from that sees such a move as appeasement, when President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, it helped provide a critical start that ultimately led to a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. No one is under any illusion that talks with North Korea would be easy and have a good chance of not succeeding, given the difficult nature of the problem, history and how far apart both sides are. However, that does not mean that there is no room to try to open a dialogue. Diplomacy requires a building of trust and a show of good faith efforts by both sides, rather than the United States being perceived as telling other countries what to do. Over the last few days, the Trump administration tripping all over itself to figure out what its North Korea policy is has made things worse not better. The U.S should drop its precondition that the North denuclearize and instead have that as a long-term end goal for diplomacy and rather map out the steps with North Korea on how it can get there- whether it’s the suspension of military drills or phased reductions in troops from the region over a long period of time in exchange for a freeze in North Korean testing of ballistic missiles. When it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program, diplomacy is the only option; Vice President Pence, and the Trump Administration, missed a critical opportunity at the Olympics.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.