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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was prepared to hold a historic meeting with top North Korean officials during his visit to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this month but was rebuffed by the North at the last minute, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Observers had anticipated a possible meeting between Pence and North Korean officials, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister and close adviser of leader Kim Jong Un. Such an encounter would have been the highest-level interaction between the Trump administration and the Kim regime.

“During the vice president’s recent visit to South Korea to demonstrate allied resolve and support American athletes, the possibility arose of a brief meeting with the North Korean delegation leaders,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“The vice president was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

“At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting,” she added, using the acronym for the North’s formal name. “We regret their failure to seize this opportunity.”

During his time in South Korea, Pence did not interact with the North Koreans even though he was seated in the same box as them at the games’ opening ceremony — nor did he shake hands with the North’s ceremonial head of state. Kim Yong Nam, during an earlier leaders’ reception.

Pence, who led the American delegation to the games, said at the time he traveled with the father of late former prisoner Otto Warmbier to the South to “remind the world of the atrocities happening in North Korea.”

The Washington Post had earlier reported the nixed Feb. 10 meeting, saying that the North Korean decision to withdraw came after Pence used his trip to denounce their nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions against the regime to date, while also taking steps to further shore up U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea.

Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, characterized the offer as the North having “dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics.”

“Instead, the vice president met with defectors who escaped tyranny, hosted Fred Warmbier, whose son was essentially murdered by North Korea, pointed out their atrocious record on human rights and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of their people, spoke about their hostile plans with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and announced a new round of tough economic sanctions were on the way.”

Ayers said that Pyongyang “would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the “maximum pressure” campaign.

“But as we’ve said from day one about the trip, this administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”

For its part, Pyongyang had publicly said on Feb. 8 that its high-level delegation had no intention to meet with Pence.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. and will be the same in the future,” Cho Yong-sam, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, was quoted as saying by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said the North’s diplomatic push has sought to dilute tough international sanctions against it and undermine the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the latest revelation was likely a part of that.

“North Koreans don’t do improvisation,” Lee said. “Like all other unconventional acts, the North’s cancellation of the meeting with Pence … was premeditated. After all, Pence had come across as grumpy at the opening ceremony the previous evening, which is all the more reason to feign disinterest in the U.S. delegation. Why? Because it pays to play hard-to-get. An audience granted may have conditioned Washington to assume it can be the party pooper and still tame Pyongyang.”

Information from Reuters added

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