Vice President Mike Pence heads to Japan and South Korea this week, stepping into what has become an increasingly comfortable role for him, that of President Donald Trump’s interpreter in chief.
With all eyes on South Korea ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics on Friday in PyeongChang, Pence will carry an uncompromising message towards Kim Jong Un and will deride any notion of normalizing North Korea’s relationships with the outside world when he leads the US delegation at the Olympics.
His trip to the Asia-Pacific region is the latest in a series of high-profile international trips, which included an important visit to the Middle East just last month. He has also been in close contact with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to coordinate policy, and White House officials say Pence expects to visit as many as 10 countries this year.
Pence, who presents himself as a more polished and practiced politician than his boss, has embraced his diplomatic role – outlining the administration’s foreign policy vision to world leaders who are often confused and anxious over Trump’s harsher rhetoric and spontaneous tweets.
His visit to Israel, for example, came just one month after Trump announced the United States would recognize Jerusalem as its capital, upsetting many in the international community who see the decision as an obstacle to peace talks. In brief remarks to reporters on the trip, Pence said his assignment from Trump was “to reiterate our nation’s deep commitment to peace.”
While in South Korea, Pence will lead the US delegation to the winter Olympics in PyeongChang. It’s an opportunity for him to celebrate the accomplishments of American athletes. But officials say his visit goes beyond the traditional ceremonial role of a leading the US delegation, and serves as an opportunity for him to apply maximum pressure on the North Korean government, and keep the regime from securing a rapprochement with their more sympathetic southern neighbors.
For Pence, who visited the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas during a previous trip to the peninsula last year, the issue is deeply personal.
During that trip, Pence told reporters about how his father – 2nd Lt. Edward J. Pence, Jr., served in the Korean War and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
“He came back with medals on his chest that went into the drawer and he never talked about them,” he recounted last month on a conservative radio show. “But my family has always been proud that my father was one of those Americans that helped win freedom for the people of South Korea.”
White House officials say Pence is on a mission to keep the regime in Pyongyang from capitalizing on their recent decision to participate in the Olympics – a decision that some hope will lead to broader North-South cooperation and, in turn, an improvement in the rocky relationship.
“The vice president will take every chance to highlight the reality of what is happening in North Korea despite any of the propaganda tactics you will see the Kim regime attempt in the media in the run-up to the Olympics and during the Olympics,” said one White House official, who briefed reporters Monday.
To highlight that point, Pence and his wife Karen will be accompanied by an American delegation that includes two top military commanders. He is also bringing Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died after being released from North Korean captivity last year, as his special guest to the Olympics opening ceremony.
Warmbier and his wife were among President Trump and the first lady’s guests at Trump’s State of the Union address last week, along with North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho.
In the speech, Trump said Ji was a “witness to the ominous nature” of the authoritarian North Korean government, insisting that North Korea was an unparalleled oppressor and that its nuclear missiles “could very soon threaten our homeland.”
Trump also held a rare meeting with North Korean defectors last week
North and South Korea agreed to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympics. Both countries’ athletes will march under a unified flag during the opening ceremony on Friday, athletes from the two countries will train together before the Olympics begin, and a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team will compete during the games.
But despite the overtures, the Trump administration is eager to keep up the pressure on North Korea and dilute what officials call North Korea’s propaganda “charade.”
While publicly supportive of the North-South talks over the Olympics issue and the subsequent cooperation, the US is wary of allowing North Korea’s government to gain economic concessions from the south through its so-called “charm offensive.”
“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,” a White House official told reporters last month. “They cut the ribbon, check the box.”
“We wouldn’t be making this trip if that’s what it was about,” the official emphasized. “(Pence) has grave concerns that Kim will hijack the messaging around the Olympics. The North Koreans have been master manipulators in the past. It’s a murderous state.”
The White House official who briefed reporters on Monday said reports of policy differences between the Trump administration and South Korea’s government, led by President Moon Jae-in, are “exaggerated.”
“President Moon has been very clear in his statements that North Korea must move toward denuclearization in tandem with any expectations of any improvement of inter-Korean ties,” the official said.
One of Pence’s challenges on this trip will be to emphasize the importance of the pressure campaign to the South Korean government, and project unity in the bilateral relationship.
The relationship has been tested not only by the inter-Korean talks, but also by the United States’ failure to nominate a full-time ambassador to South Korea – which has irked officials in Seoul, who hoped to see someone in place before the Olympic games.
Moon’s government had already approved the planned nomination of academic Victor Cha, which was pulled back after Cha expressed private reservations over the validity of a potential “bloody nose” strike against North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure.