Who Snubbed Who in Korea? Was it Pence’s Truculence, or Little Sister Kim’s Reticence?

The Trump administration, finally reacting to the diplomatic snafu at the Winter Olympics, blames the North Koreans. The South Koreans are saying, ‘Not so fast.’

Odd Andersen/Getty

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—Days after the snub seen round the world, when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence appeared ossified, staring ahead in stony silence at the Winter Olympics rather than glance at the sister of North Korea’s leader, who was standing behind him, the Trump administration has let it be known that, really, the other side balked.

Pence’s trip was widely derided, even by advocates of a hard line toward the North Korean regime, as a major diplomatic fumble. (He also managed to offend his hosts by declining to stand when North and South Korean teams marched under a single flag at the opening ceremony.)

Now, confronted by the reports out of Washington, South Korean officials can scarcely hide their disappointment over what one of them called “a missed connection” that is the failure of Pence and Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to initiate, however tentatively, some sort of dialogue.

“We thought we had arranged to make a conversation possible,” said one official, but alas it was not to be.

The official line from Washington is that North Korea turned down a meeting between the two after it seemed to have been almost a done deal. Not so fast, however, the skeptics in South Korea’s ruling Minjoo or Democracy Party are saying. According to their version, Pence wanted none of it.

We may never get the definitive answer as to why the meeting and the possibly portentous conversation never happened, but two points emerge clearly.

First, and most important from the viewpoint of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and his top aides, is that the U.S. and North Korea still have to get down to talking to one another. Never mind that Pence and Kim Yo Jong avoided so much as eye contact while they were positioned  one row apart in the VIP box at the opening of these most politicized of Olympics. The Americans and North Koreans must get together on some meaningful level, Seoul says, if only between special envoys rather than top-level leaders.

The second point is not so hopeful. The White House has said the reason the North Korean side backed out of talking on that “lost weekend” is that the North, meaning Kim Jong Un, was not about to talk about giving up its nuclear program. Surely, whether Kim liked it or not, the subject would have had to arise if Pence and Littler Sister were to go beyond totally superficial pleasantries.

While the White House explanation may seem disingenuous, North Korea has made abundantly clear, whenever the topic arises, that its nuclear program is sacrosanct. Nuclear weaponry is a right, in the view of the North Koreans, that’s enshrined in the country’s constitution.

South Koreans concede talks may not go anywhere, given the North’s seemingly unshakeable position, but President Moon is still making U.S.-North Korean negotiations a top priority, almost a prerequisite, before he can accept Kim Jong Un’s invitation, delivered to him personally by Yo Jong, to meet in Pyongyang.

Moon sought to clarify his strategy when he dropped in on Korean reporters here several days ago.  Sooner or later, he said, talks between North and South should lead to talks between the U.S. and North Korea—and “eventually to talks about denuclearization.”

If that concept seemed like wishful thinking, Moon was clear about one thing: “Consensus is growing that dialogue between the United States and North Korea is necessary.”

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Moon’s view on the topic seemed to reflect communications with the U.S., certainly the State Department and possibly the White House. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed his willingness to meet North Koreans without preconditions, and President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is coming here for the closing ceremony of the games on Sunday.

Ivanka, who works out of the White House with husband Jared Kushner, will be carrying messages of some sort from her father, who may want to express his interest in exploring talks with North Korea. Thus the closing ceremony may be almost as laden with significant overtones and implications as was the opening.

All that will be missing will be a North Korean as influential and close to Kim Jong Un as Little Sister, but South Koreans aren’t too worried about that during the Ivanka sojourn. “If her visit here brings the U.S. closer to talks with the North,” said one official “we will consider it a success.”