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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Asia and Olympics aimed at countering North Korea

AP, Bloomberg

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s six-day swing through Asia, anchored by a stop at the Winter Olympics in South Korea and including a trip to Japan, is set to focus less on sports than the host country’s bellicose neighbor to the North.

Pence departed Monday for Alaska, Japan, and South Korea, aiming to ensure North Korea doesn’t “hijack” the games as it participates on a joint team with the South, in the view of the White House. He’ll hold symbolic events of his own to highlight the North’s human rights abuses and nuclear ambitions, according to White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to preview the trip publicly.

Pence tweeted Friday: “I’ll travel to Japan & S Korea to attend the Olympics & cheer on our athletes. But I’ll also be there to deliver a message: the era of strategic patience is OVER. As N. Korea continues to test ballistic missiles & threaten the U.S, we’ll make it clear all options are on the table.”

In Alaska, Pence toured missile defense facilities Monday that monitor and could respond to a launch by the North. In Japan, he will meet with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and visit U.S. service members at Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. In Korea, Pence will visit a memorial to the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to the North, and hold meetings with President Moon Jae-in.

“Missile defense is essential to our national defense,” Pence said before a briefing with U.S. Northern Command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. He touted the coming deployment of an additional 20 ground-based interceptors that would respond to an enemy launch.

Leading the U.S. delegation to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Pence will bring to the games Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died in 2017 shortly after he was released from North Korean detention.

“He & his wife remind the world of the atrocities happening in N Korea,” Pence tweeted Monday before departing Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, did not rule out the possibility of a U.S.-North Korea meeting at the Olympics. The games have provided a diplomatic opening between the rival Koreas, but little let-up in the acrimony between Washington and Pyongyang.

“I think we’ll just see. We’ll have to see what happens,” Tillerson told a news conference in Peru. North Korea is sending its nominal head of state, Kim Jong Nam — the highest-level visitor to the South from the North in recent memory.

White House officials said Pence was not seeking a meeting with North Korean officials participating in the games, but didn’t rule out the possibility of a chance encounter.

In Alaska, Pence echoed Tillerson, saying: “We’ll see what happens.”

The trip comes after President Donald Trump hosted a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, including Ji Seong-ho, whom the president referenced in his State of the Union address last week. The White House cast the meeting as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to counter the North Korean nuclear program. The plan centers around rallying the international community to further isolate North Korea both diplomatically and economically.

White House officials said Pence was expected to continue to bring attention to North Korea’s human rights abuses on the trip, and offer a reminder of grim conditions in the reclusive country.

While South Korea has eagerly engaged in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, the White House has remained skeptical. The ongoing talks — and the decision by both countries to march together under a single flag during the opening ceremony — could be used by Kim to spread propaganda, officials have said.

North Korea’s athletes came to South Korea on Feb. 1, with the rest of the delegation arriving later this week. Pyongyang will also send a cheering squad, reporters and an art troupe.

“They do want to send out strong messages to counter North Korea’s propaganda arm,” said Patrick Cronin, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific security program. “North Korea is made for propaganda — it’s a propaganda state in many ways. Look at the delegation that they’re sending — it’s not filled with athletes. It’s filled with celebrities and orchestras.”

On Sunday, the North Korean government shot back that its nuclear missile program would “deter Trump and his lackeys from showing off on the Korean Peninsula.”

“If Trump does not get rid of his anachronistic and dogmatic way of thinking, it will only bring about the consequence of further endangering security and future of the United States,” the government said in comments carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

Trump and other senior officials have repeatedly said that time is running out before North Korea gains the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. The isolated country has proven it can launch missiles of sufficient range, but has yet to develop a vehicle that can withstand the hazards of atmospheric re-entry.