Pence Begins Asia Trip In Japan

Feb 7, 2018
Originally published on February 7, 2018 6:28 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence is heading to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Much of the news there has been North Korea's participation. North and South Korea even have a shared team in women's hockey. But Pence visiting Tokyo this morning was not exactly conciliatory.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games. We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic ban or the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.

GREENE: Pence also said the U.S. is preparing even tougher sanctions against North Korea. NPR's Elise Hu joins us from Tokyo. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there. Good morning.

GREENE: Well, so I know the vice president - I mean, the big question is whether he's going to end up meeting with some sort of North Korean delegation when both of these countries are at the Olympics this weekend. Is there an answer to that question?

HU: Well, the vice president said that there's no meeting planned with North Korea, but he said, quote, "we'll see." So I guess the answer is what the vice president said - we'll see. It's also what the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said when he was asked a similar question. He also said, we'll see. So these are strikingly similar comments from the vice president and the secretary of state. The White House has cautioned against reading too much into this. But this does come against a backdrop, of course, of diplomacy between North Korea and South Korea with their joint women's hockey team marching in together under a unified flag. So we'll see.

GREENE: Whatever the Trump administration is doing, it sounds like it's a coordinated message. Well, so what happens at the opening ceremony? You're going to have the vice president there in the audience. And there will certainly be a delegation from North Korea in the audience. So they'll at least be sharing the same stadium, right?

HU: That's right. North Korea's delegation tops more than 200 people. The highest-ranking member of its delegation is one of the senior officials for Kim Jong Un in their hierarchy. His name is Kim Yong Nam. He's in his 90s, and he's a ceremonial leader. Also just announced a few hours ago is that Kim Jong Un's younger sister, who's becoming more and more influential in the regime, she will also be attending the opening ceremony as part of the North Korean delegation. These are the most senior North Korean officials to enter the South since the Korean War ended some 70 years ago.

GREENE: Well, I guess first thing's first. Vice President Pence is in Tokyo or in Japan for a couple days before he even goes to South Korea. So what's happening there?

HU: Right. He's making this two-day stop on his way to South Korea for the Olympics. There's a concern, of course, that the alliances between the U.S., South Korea and Japan could get frayed in the face of differing North Korea policy. So this is really about alignment and agreement with the allies. Concern about North Korea has led Japan to update its missile defense. And so Pence visited a Patriot missile battery before meetings at the Defense Ministry here in Tokyo and a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. But really, this is relationship maintenance here in Japan. It's a longstanding U.S. ally.

The current Japanese administration is quite loyal to the Trump government, really in lockstep on this hard-line policy. But Japan is in a tough spot because it's next door to North Korea, of course. So if it does come to evacuations or any sort of military conflict, the Japanese people are far more at risk than most Americans, of course, who live thousands of miles away on the mainland.

GREENE: NPR's Elise Hu in Tokyo this morning, covering Vice President Pence's visit there. He is heading from there to South Korea, where he'll be attending the opening Olympic ceremonies. Elise, thanks.

HU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.