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Washington (AFP) – Mike Pence and North Korean officials had planned to meet secretly during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but Pyongyang scrapped the talks after the US vice president denounced abuses from the “murderous regime,” US officials said Tuesday.

Pence did not interact with the North Koreans even though he was seated in the same box as them at the opening ceremony of the Games earlier this month — nor did he shake hands with the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam during an earlier leaders’ reception.

The US vice president, who led the American delegation to the Games, said at the time he traveled with the father of late former prisoner Otto Warmbier to the South to “remind the world of the atrocities happening in North Korea.”

“During the vice president’s recent visit to South Korea to demonstrate allied resolve and support American athletes, the possibility arose of a brief meeting with the North Korean delegation leaders,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“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.

“At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity,” she added.

– ‘Murderous regime’ –

Pence’s spokesman Nick Ayers characterized the offer as the North having “dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics.”

“Instead, the vice president met with defectors who escaped tyranny, hosted Fred Warmbier, whose son was essentially murdered by North Korea, pointed out their atrocious record on human rights and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of their people, spoke about their hostile plans with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and announced a new round of tough economic sanctions were on the way.”

Even as the US warned against falling for Pyongyang’s Olympic charm offensive, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued an invitation via his sister Kim Yo Jong, who was attending the Games, for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“North Korea would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum pressure campaign,” Ayers said.

“But as we’ve said from day one about the trip: this administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics. 

“Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down.”

Analysts say the North’s Olympic diplomatic drive sought to loosen international sanctions against it and undermine the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

On his return trip from the Games, Pence said there was “no daylight” between the US, South Korean and Japan on efforts to isolate Pyongyang economically and diplomatically until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Washington calls it a campaign of “maximum pressure.” 

Global alarm at the rapid advance of nuclear-armed North Korea’s weapons technology rose further last year when the regime tested its Hwasong-15 ballistic missile — theoretically capable of hitting the mainland US — in a challenge to Washington, which has threatened to “utterly destroy” the regime in the event of an attack.

President Donald Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un have engaged in a series of personal insults.

But as tensions rose between the North and Washington, the Games triggered a rapid reconciliation between the two Koreas, who are still technically at war.

“The president made a decision that if they wanted to talk, we would deliver our uncompromising message. If they asked for a meeting, we would meet,” Ayers said, referring to Trump. 

“He also made clear that until they agreed to complete denuclearization we weren’t going to change any of our positions or negotiate.”

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