Tokyo (CNN)Vice President Mike Pence kicked off his swing through Asia Wednesday by vowing to intensify pressure on North Korea over its growing nuclear threat and show solidarity with US allies in the region.
In Asia, Pence pressures North Korea ahead of Olympics
Pence viewed Japanese troops as they demonstrated a simulation of Japanese surface-to-air missile defense systems and took part in a briefing by Japan's defense minister before meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"The United States is with you in this challenge," Pence told Abe as they began their talks. "And we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Japan, the people of South Korea, and our allies and partners across the region until we achieve the global objective of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."
On Thursday, Pence will visit American troops who would be on the front lines if a crisis with North Korea erupted.
"The people of Japan can be assured: The full range of the armed forces of the United States will continue to be dedicated to the protection of Japan," Pence said, adding "all options are on the table" in combating the North Korean threat.
By keeping the focus on North Korea's nuclear and missile threat and its human rights abuses, Pence is looking to deny Pyongyang a propaganda victory over its recent decision to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Later in the week, Pence will meet with North Korean defectors to highlight the country's human rights abuses.
"We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games," he said after meeting with Abe. "We'll be there to cheer our athletes, but we'll also be there to stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet."
To further underscore the need to keep pressure on Pyongyang, Pence said the Trump administration would impose the "toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions ever" against North Korea in the coming days.
"And we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all," Pence said.
Officials traveling with Pence declined to offer specifics about the sanctions, citing concerns North Korea would use any details to skirt them. The new measures are expected to be rolled out before the conclusion of the Olympic games.
The vice president used a refueling stop Monday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to set the scene for a trip he said was intended to show American "resolve" in rallying the international community against the North Korean regime. Speaking to reporters after a briefing with top US military commanders on missile defense, he vowed not to allow North Korea to use "the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime."
But the F-22 fighter jet behind him projected an equally powerful dose of symbolism -- one of American military might ready to combat a North Korean nuclear threat that has dominated the Trump administration's first year in office.
From Tokyo, Pence will visit Seoul for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before traveling to Pyeongchang for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games.
A meeting between Pence, Moon and Abe in Japan at the Olympics, Abe said, will further demonstrate the solidarity of the alliance between the US, South Korea and Japan in combating the North Korean threat.
Even the US delegation attending the Games is meant to reinforce the message of American resolve. Pence, along with his wife, Karen, will lead an American delegation that includes two top military commanders.
He is also bringing Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died soon after being released from North Korean captivity last year, as his personal guest to the Olympics opening ceremony. Warmbier and his wife were among Trump's guests at the State of the Union last month.
Speculation continues to build about a possible meeting between Pence and members of the North Korean delegation in Pyeongchang.
Pence's aides would not confirm a meeting would take place, but pointedly did not deny some kind of interaction was being considered.
The vice president himself left the door open as to whether he would meet North Korean officials at the Olympic games, fueling speculation that a meeting was in the works.
"Let me say President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven't requested any meeting. But we'll see what happens," he said.
Senior administration officials told CNN the South Korean government is pushing for Pence to hold some sort of meeting with the North Koreans and is quietly acting as an intermediary in trying to make it happen.
"There is no shift in policy," a senior administration official later told reporters. "He's not going to South Korea to negotiate. He is going to stand with our allies."
In Colombia Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added, "It's well known there's a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. North Korea is participating in the Olympics as well, so we don't know what might present itself."
Tillerson, who has been pushing for dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, has been in close contact with Pence in the days leading up to his trip to Asia
Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, will lead the North Korean delegation. Kim is the ceremonial head of state -- though all power rests with Kim Jong Un -- and the most senior North Korean official to ever visit the South, according to the Blue House.
South Korea's Unification Ministry announced that Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim, will also be part of the high-level North Korean delegation at the games.
If a meeting took place, it would mark the highest-level interaction between the US and North Korea in decades. But it would not be the first time Trump administration officials have sat face-to-face with North Korean diplomats.
Tillerson attended a UN Security Council meeting in December, where he addressed the North Korean ambassador. North Koreans "alone are responsible for these tensions, they alone must take responsibility for these tensions, and they alone can solve these tensions," Tillerson told North Korea's UN ambassador Ja Song Nam.
Pence said his message about North Korea would be the same, "whatever the setting, whoever is present.
"And that is that North Korea must once and for all abandon its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile ambitions."
Only then, he stressed, could North Korea take its place among the family of nations.
"North Korea can have a better future than the militaristic path and the path of provocation and confrontation that it's on," he said. "Better for its own people, better for the region, and better for peace."
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."
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.
South Korean President Moon is hoping to translate the Olympic cooperation into deeper engagement with Pyongyang. But Pence is trying to keep the focus on North Korea's threatening behavior and continue to pressure the regime with sanctions.
The North Korean regime has planned a major military parade Thursday, a day before the opening of the Olympic games, which Pence noted sends a "very different message than the message of cooperation and friendship that they're projecting to much of the world."
"We'll be telling the truth about North Korea at every stop," Pence said in Alaska before heading to Asia. "We'll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that's existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community."
With a possible meeting hanging in the air, Pence, for a third time, held out the prospect of better relations.
"If they will choose a different path, there's a better future for the people of North Korea and the people of the Korean Peninsula with a nuclear-free future," he said.