Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Vice President Mike Pence is on his way to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But he’s not just going to cut ribbons and watch sports. The fateful question is whether he’s going there to improve the chances of a diplomatic solution to the confrontation between the United States and North Korea – or essentially to give Kim Jong Un the finger.
“The vice president will not allow the North Korean regime to hijack the messaging of the Olympics,” an administration official told reporters. “You’ll see (him) highlight the reality of what’s happening in North Korea, despite propaganda tactics.”
To punctuate that point, Pence invited Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, to the opening ceremony. Otto Warmbier, you may recall, is the American college student detained in North Korea last year. He died mysteriously last summer after he was released from captivity by the North.
It’s hard to take issue with any effort to highlight how brutal, cruel and dangerous is the North Korean regime. To be fair, the Trump administration has led – and commendably so – an international effort to increase pressure on Pyongyang. And the vice president sounded measured and reassuring Monday night as he left Alaska for Asia. He left open the possibility of a meeting with representatives of North Korea: “President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meeting. But we’ll see what happens.”
Whether or not there’s a meeting – and we shouldn’t expect one of much substance – let’s hope he’s trying to strike a better balance on this trip than his aides have suggested. Because it seems to me that characterizing Pence’s trip as little more than a messaging effort trivializes the Games and exposes three risks to the good work the Trump administration has done on North Korea:
1) The degree to which they step on themselves.
President Donald Trump bragged just last month about how his muscular approach to Pyongyang brought the two sides together to find common ground over Olympic participation.
“If I weren’t involved,” he said, “they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics right now. They’d be doing no talking or it would be much more serious.”
Reporting by The Wall Street Journal indicates the White House was actually blindsided by consultations between the North and South and none too happy about it either. But that didn’t stop Trump from reportedly asking South Korean President Moon Jae-in to give him the credit for it, which Moon did some days later.
Korea watchers worried about the lack of US participation in these talks. But that didn’t worry the administration.
“If the Olympics provide an opening for conversations to occur, that’s better for the people of South Korea and also the people of North Korea,” Steve Goldstein, US undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said at the time. “We want to see their athletes participate and be part of the community of nations.”
So, Trump got what exactly what he said he wanted: inter-Korean talks about sports and the credit for starting them.
Pence should be taking a victory lap. It would be a mistake to make it more about politics than diplomacy, revealing the administration’s underlying resentment about being cut out of the process.
2) The degree to which they are tone deaf to our allies.
The White House is right. Kim will use the Olympics to spew propaganda and tout his plans to reunify the Korean Peninsula “independently.” He’ll also lob insults at Trump and the United States. But he won’t find much purchase in the South.
The alliance is strong, and a survey last year by the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, cited by The New York Times, found that more than 70% of South Koreans in their 20s oppose reunification right now. Nationwide support for reunification dropped more than 11 percentage points from just four years ago.
No one needs to be convinced by Pence of how bad the North Korean regime is.
But there’s also a real question about how helpful harsh rhetoric by Pence aimed at the North would be to the South Korean government itself.
The South Korean leader took a hit in his popularity over this whole Olympics thing. According to Gallup Korea, his approval rating fell six points to 67% – his second-lowest rating so far. Some of it had to do with his decision to field an inter-Korean women’s hockey team.
But in the main, South Koreans favor a peaceful outcome to tensions and the avoidance of open conflict. In fact, pursuing this sort of outreach is one of the reasons Moon was elected.
Pence has been restrained and balanced in his commentary thus far. No hyperbole. And that’s important. Whether or not he talks to anyone from the North, he should remain so and careful not to undermine Moon, lest he give Kim higher hopes that a wedge can be driven between us and our South Korean allies.
3) The degree to which they – and not the North – sully the purpose of the Games.
Think about this quote, offered by a White House official last month:
“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. We wouldn’t be making this trip if that’s what it was about. (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.”
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To be sure, it would be irresponsible for Pence to make this trip without addressing the larger threat posed to the region by Kim. And it’s smart for Pence to visit Tokyo first, reassuring the Japanese of our commitment to their defense as well.
But by characterizing the trip so baldly in this fashion, Pence’s aides risk politicizing the Games in exactly the same manner they accuse Kim of wanting to do. They do a disservice to their boss, who seems to be willing to steer a more balanced course.
We should be glad he is attending the Olympics. And we should support him in his efforts not to paper over the brutality of Kim. But he shouldn’t be going to try to hijack the hijacker.
He should be going to demonstrate the strength and resolve of our alliance with South Korea, to support them in their efforts to host a safe and exciting Games, and to cheer on our athletes who have worked so hard to make the team.
Sending that message, reinforcing those ideals, exposing North Korean athletes to this sort of magnanimity is a far better use of the vice president’s time.