Moon fails to bring Pence, Kim together at reception

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Moon fails to bring Pence, Kim together at reception


South Korean President Moon Jae-in, front row center, and IOC President Thomas Bach, left of Moon, pose for a commemorative photo with heads of state and global leaders, including Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, back row center, at a reception ahead of the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also attended but were not present for the photo. [YONHAP]

President Moon Jae-in’s ambitious attempt to stage an encounter between top leaders of North Korea and the United States on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics fell through Friday after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an event.

Anticipation was high earlier in the day that a face-to-face meeting would take place between Pence and North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam as they were supposed to sit across from each other at a welcome reception and dinner. Moon invited about 200 dignitaries, including visiting foreign leaders, and Pence and Kim were to join him at the head table.

Upon his arrival at the venue, Kim was greeted by Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook. It was Kim’s first contact with Moon since the North’s delegation arrived in the South earlier in the afternoon.

A delicate diplomatic dance began when Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were conspicuously absent from a leaders’ group photo before the reception. The event started about 10 minutes late without them, and they arrived after the reception room’s door was closed. They cooled their heels in a nearby conference room while Moon gave a welcome speech. Moon, then, left the reception and took a photo with the U.S. and Japanese leaders.

Moon, Abe and Pence entered the reception together, but the U.S. vice president left five minutes later after shaking hands with every foreign leader at the event except Kim.

Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah told U.S. media that Pence greeted guests at several tables, “but did not come across the North Korean delegation.”

Without sitting down at the head table, Pence left the room, while Abe joined the dinner. Others at the head table included China’s chief delegate, Han Zheng, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The Blue House quickly went into damage control mode, claiming that it had not been snubbed by its most important ally. “Pence had a dinner plan with American athletes and informed the Blue House in advance,” said Yoon Young-chan, senior presidential secretary for public affairs. “We, therefore, did not prepare his seat.”

The table, however, had two empty seats with name tags for the U.S. vice president and his wife.

Yoon also confirmed that Pence did not shake hands with Kim.

Hosting top leaders from Pyongyang, Washington, Tokyo and Beijing was an ambitious attempt by Moon to take control of the security crisis triggered by North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. After restarting inter-Korean talks in January, Moon has worked for a breakthrough by exploiting the Olympics, particularly direct dialogue between the North and the United States.

At the beginning of the reception, Moon issued a welcome speech, stressing that it was meaningful for him to arrange a gathering of the leaders who were otherwise unable to meet one another. Ironically, Pence and Abe were not in the room when he made those remarks.

“Even as we are here together, many countries around the world have thorny issues to sort out between them. Korea is no exception,” Moon said. “Had it not been for the PyeongChang Olympics, some of us might not have had the chance to be together in the same room.

“However, what is more important than anything else is that we are all here together now; we can cheer for athletes together and talk about our future.

We are here together and that alone will be a precious starting point for a step forward toward world peace.”

He also said the two Koreas’ joint team will have an ice hockey game on Saturday and invited the leaders to it.

A meeting between Kim and Pence, if realized, would have been the highest contact between Pyongyang and Washington in more than a decade.

In October 2000, Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, a top North Korean military official, traveled to the United States on a goodwill mission and met with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

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