US Vice President Mike Pence worked to deny North Korea a propaganda victory Friday, contrasting the growing excitement over Pyongyang’s participation at the Olympic Games with powerful reminders of what he has called the most “tyrannical regime on the planet.”
As South President Moon Jae-in prepared to host the North Korean delegation, including Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, Pence and his wife Karen met with four North Korean defectors who shared heartbreaking stories of famine, torture and hardship.
“The American people stand with you for freedom and you represent the people of North Korea, millions of which long to be free as well,” Pence told the defectors, two of whom met President Donald Trump at the White House last week.
“We’ve been inspired by your bravery. We ourselves have stood and looked across that demilitarized zone, that line across which you fled. You fled to freedom.”
Later Friday Pence arrived at the Olympic venue in Pyeongchang where he met with Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At a leaders’ reception ahead of the Opening Ceremony, the Vice President stopped to talk to delegates at several tables but didn’t come across the North Korean delegation, according to officials traveling with him.
At the earlier meeting with defectors, Pence was joined by Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died soon after being released from North Korean captivity last year. Warmbier shared a warm embrace with Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean man who US President Donald Trump introduced to the nation last month during his State of the Union address.
Trump told Ji’s harrowing tale of how his limbs were run over by a train after he collapsed on the tracks in exhaustion before enduring torture at the hands of North Korean authorities.
Ji fled through an underground network China and other countries in 2006 before arriving in South Korea. He traveled on a pair of wooden crutches he said his father had made for him. With tears in his eyes, Ji hoisted the wooden crutches that his father made, to the thunderous applause from the audience at the State of the Union.
Pence also met Ji Huron, who escaped and was repatriated to North Korea three times, where she was tortured, underwent a forced abortion and sent to a prison camp. She was released from the prison camp as part of a nationwide pardon of inmates on Kim Jung Il’s birthday, in February 2000.
Kim Hye Sook was incarcerated in a North Korean political prison camp for 28 years. When she tried to escape, she was sold into slave labor and repatriated before escaping to South Korea in 2009.
Kim told Pence, despite the images of North Koreans celebrating at the Olympic games, “we should never forget the millions of North Korean people who are struggling to survive.”
Pence also met Lee Hyeon-seo, author of the best-selling book “The Girl with Seven Names – A North Korean Defector’s Story.”
‘Stand up for the truth’
The US delegation met with the defectors on the sidelines of a visit to pay respects at the Cheonan Memorial which honors South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack by North Korea.
Pence toured a museum featuring the soldiers’ stories and examined hallowed remains of the Korean warship attacked by North Korea.
“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies,” Pence said before flying to Pyeongchang to attend the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony.
“But is also to stand up for the truth. And to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change,” Pence said.
“They have to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They have to end the day of provocation and menacing. And frankly they have to end an appalling record of human rights that you heard first-hand today.”
Caution over warming ties
The Trump administration has been wary of South Korea’s Olympic diplomacy.
Before meeting with Pence Thursday night, President Moon called the Olympics the “Olympic Games of peace,” which he hoped would become a “venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Pence papered over any differences between the two allies, congratulating Moon on hosting the games, but refraining from criticizing his government’s efforts to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.
Pence has used his trip to Asia to keep the focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat and human rights abuses and deny Pyongyang a propaganda victory over its recent decision to participate in games.