SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media reported, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, arrived in South Korea on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.
The ceremony will also be attended by a senior delegation of North Korean officials, including the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un and the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
The sister, Kim Yo Jong, and other members of her entourage will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday afternoon, North Korea informed the South on Thursday.
The North’s delegation, including Kim Yo Jong, will also meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and have lunch with him on Saturday.
We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too, the North’s KCNA news agency reported, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general at North Korea’s foreign ministry.
Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea … Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.
Pence said the United States had not requested talks with North Korean officials, but left open the possibility of some contact.
But if I have any contact with them, in any context, over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today North Korea needs to, once and for all, abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambition, Pence told reporters as he left Japan.
Earlier in the week, Pence said Washington would soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.
South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with North Korea and open the way for talks to resolve one of the world’s most dangerous crises, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and Pyongyang have swapped bellicose threats of nuclear war.
Hinting at more engagement with Pyongyang, Seoul said it would be open to discuss resuming tours to North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang once the security of tourists was guaranteed and conditions relating to North Korea’s nuclear program were met.
South Korean tours to the resort were closed after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean guard there in 2008.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that China saw the Olympics as a first step towards everyday, uninterrupted dialogue.
All sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.
You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it, he said.
North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, a government official told Reuters, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Domestic media reports said the parade was smaller than those of previous years.
Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he witnessed in Paris in July, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
Pence will meet Moon on Thursday. On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.
Pence is taking the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months.
Kim Yo Jong, the 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader, will be sitting in the same stadium as VIP guests along with Kim Yong Nam.
She will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official and was blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.
By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States, said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.
Japan’s Abe, whose nation has been within range of North Korean missiles for decades, will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts.
South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.
Seoul has said no decision had been made yet on Choe and Pyongyang had not mentioned any change in their plans to send him.
The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped a series of sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programs, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.
A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, including a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.
Preliminary competition at the Games began on Thursday, with events including curling and ski jumping.
Organizers have already been battling some challenges, including a stomach virus that has hit dozens of staff and a fire near the Olympic media village on Thursday that produced thick black smoke but was quickly extinguished.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Ossian Shine in PYEONGCHANG, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie
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