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Amid Olympic detente, Pence talks tough

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday talked up what he called the unprecedented strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance, and emphasized his nation’s resolve to “peacefully dismantle” North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Speaking to American troops stationed at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Pence echoed an earlier message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Japan-U.S. bond has “never been stronger than it is today.” The two allies, Pence said, are bound together by their “time-honored alliance” and “unshakable commitment to freedom.”

Sandwiched between two F-35 fighter jets in a packed hangar, Pence sought to lift the spirit of military personnel as they face the persistent nuclear threat from North Korea. He had stopped in Japan ahead of attending the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea on Friday.

“You’re in every sense the embodiment of American strength, unbeatable by anyone, anywhere, anytime,” he told the troops.

Yokota is the headquarters of both U.S. Forces Japan and the Air Self-Defense Forces Air Defense Command — a fact that some say makes it particularly at risk of a missile attack by North Korea.

Despite what appears to be a recent inter-Korean thaw ahead of the Olympics, the vice president spent a large portion of the speech highlighting the North’s unabated dream of “conquering their neighbors in the South,” as well as its brutal human rights abuses that he said has consigned its citizens to a lifetime of “poverty,” “starvation” and “deprivation.”

“We’ll continue to peacefully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and alleviate the suffering of its people,” Pence said.

On Thursday, Pyongyang staged a military parade in a display of strength, media reports said. The military demonstration was arguably a slap in the face to South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has spent recent weeks trying to project the image of a united Korea ahead of the Olympics, at which the two Koreas are set to compete under the same flag.

Pence, who on Wednesday announced that “the toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions against the regime are in the offing, said the United States will stand firm on its “maximum pressure” campaign against the North.

America “will always seek peace. We will ever strive for a better future. But you — the instruments of American power — know and let our adversaries know all options are on the table,” Pence told the troops at Yokota.

Citing a military spending boost signed by President Donald Trump last year, Pence said the United States will “continue to rebuild our military,” and pledged to acquire the “nuclear might to deter any strategic attack on our nation, our people or our allies around the world.”

Despite his harsh rhetoric, Pence hadn’t categorically ruled out the possibility of meeting with senior North Korean officials during the games, saying “we’ll see what happens.” His noncommittal attitude has prompted speculation, but hopes that such an encounter would come to fruition quickly thinned Thursday as Pyongyang announced it has no plans to meet U.S. officials.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S.,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on Thursday, citing Cho Yong Sam, director-general of the North American department of North Korea’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea,” Cho said.