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Officials: Mike Pence Did Not Snub North Koreans Seated Nearby at Olympics Opening Ceremony

Officials traveling with Vice President Mike Pence during his trip to the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies pushed back on reports that Pence snubbed the North Koreans and that he knowingly chose to accept a seat in South Korea’s box in which North Korean representatives were also seated.

Earlier on Friday, Pence and second lady Karen Pence met with North Korean defectors at the Cheonan Memorial, which is located outside of Seoul, South Korea. The Pences were joined by Otto Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier. Pence told the defectors that he was “very grateful for [their] presence and very grateful for [their] courage.” He added that he “wanted the honor of meeting with the men and women who fled the tyranny of North Korea.”

Pence told the defectors that it was important that the truth about North Korea is known during the Olympic Games.

The Vice President held a press gaggle outside of the memorial during which he was asked whether his message on North Korea was being overshadowed by Olympic fever or Kim Jonh-un’s sister’s presence there. Pence responded that President Donald Trump sent him there to “reaffirm the strong relationship between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.”

He then added that the President also sent him to South Korea to:

Make sure that as north Korea engages in what prime minister Abe rightly called a “charm offensive” around the Olympics. A charm offensive that they’ve have done before at the Olympics in 2000, 2004 and 2006 – which as I mentioned earlier this week – it would just be a matter of eight months after the 2006 winter Olympics that North Korea tested their first nuclear bomb.

Pence also told the press that the night prior, he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in “reaffirmed our commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” He added that Moon repeated a message in private that Moon has spoken in public, “that South Korea stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States and our allies in continuing to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically.”

During a pre-Olympics Opening ceremonies reception in Pyeongchang later that day, Pence “did not come across” the North Korean delegation, according to a spokesman for the Vice President. The North Koreans were present at the reception at the same time as Pence.

Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence sat in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s box for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. They sat in the same row as President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The three had held a meeting ahead of the ceremony. Both Kim Yong Nam and Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, also sat in Moon’s box. A White House official indicated that it was fair to cast the lack of interaction between Pence and the North Koreans in Moon’s box as mutual.

White House officials clarified for the press that it was known ahead of time that the North Koreans would also be seated in Moon’s box, and Pence knowingly chose to sit in Moon’s box instead of in the U.S. delegation box.

White House officials told the press:

We wanted to show the alliance seated together. We wanted the North Koreans to see the vice president, Abe and Moon sitting directly in front of them for the Opening Ceremonies, and it would show that that alliance is strong. At any moment, he could have gotten up and left and sat somewhere else, and then you would have had the imagine of North sitting in the box with South Korea and Japan. But he stayed there the entire time.

Pence sat in front row and talked to Moon and Abe and their spouses, and the North Koreans sat in the back and didn’t talk to anybody, and that image is telling,” the officials said. The North Koreans had met with Abe at the earlier reception and with Moon. “I just don’t think you talk geopolitics over speed skating. He’s been very clear what his message is.

Fred Warmbier attended the ceremony as Pence’s guest, but in the U.S. delegation box.

The North and South Korean Olympic athletes entered the ceremony together under a united flag.

White House officials speaking with the press after the evening’s Opening Ceremony pushed back on reports in the South Korean media that Pence had snubbed the North Koreans.

Follow Michelle Moons on Twitter @MichelleDiana

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