North Korea Invited Mike Pence for Secret Talks, Only to Cancel at the Last Minute

Kim Yo Jong, top right, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sits alongside Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, and behind U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as she watches the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea, on February 9. Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty Images

North Korean officials canceled a meeting with American Vice President Mike Pence and his delegation just a few hours before secret talks were to take place in South Korea.

A meeting between the delegations had been in the works for two weeks, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, quoting White House sources. One official told the newspaper the CIA understood North Korea wanted a meeting with Pence, who was due to travel to the Korean Peninsula to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics on February 9, although another official said it was South Korea that acted as an intermediary.

The meeting was due to take place on February 10 at the South Korean presidential office known as the Blue House, which was supposed to represent neutral ground. Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's nominal head of state, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong were due to represent their countries at the talks, according to the Post. Pence would have attended along with a representative from the National Security Council and an intelligence official and Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers.

The meeting, which had been agreed upon before Pence embarked on his trip to South Korea—involving stops in Alaska and Japan—on February 5, was suddenly canceled two hours before it was to take place, with the North apparently displeased with Pence's attitude towards the regime. "North Korea 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," Ayers told the Post.

Pence announced the U.S. plan to implement new sanctions against the regime during his stop in Japan, and repeatedly mentioned that the trip to the Olympics was aimed at preventing the country from "hijacking" the event with a charm offensive. The vice president used the trip to highlight North Korea's appalling human rights record, meeting with North Korean defectors and inviting Fred Warmbier, the father of American tourist Otto Warmbier, to the opening ceremony. Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea for more than a year and was returned to the U.S. in a coma, suffering from brain damage, last June. He died shortly afterward.

Pence did hint he was open to meeting with North Korea, saying "we'll see what happens" when asked about it during a press conference in Alaska on February 5. In a separate press conference in Peru on the same day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used similar language.

Both Pence and Tillerson were part of a small group of White House administration officials who discussed how to respond to the North Korean invitation, along with President Donald Trump, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, CIA director Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Ayers, according to the Post.

The line the White House decided on was the one that Pence told reporters in Alaska, namely that North Korea "must once and for all abandon its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile ambitions."

Pence barely showed any sign of interest in the North Korean officials, who sat in the row behind him at the opening ceremony, even before the meeting was canceled.

"I didn't believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any countenance or attention in that forum to someone who's not merely the sister of the dictator but is the leader of the propaganda effort," Pence said at a talk organized by the news website Axios last week.

North Korean media had rejected any suggestions a meeting could take place between the two delegations previously on February 8. "We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too. Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea," a statement attributed to the director-general of the North American department of North Korea's foreign ministry published in the state-controlled news agency KCNA read.

Despite the talk cancellation, on his way back from South Korea Pence said the U.S. would be willing to talk to the North Koreans even without Pyongyang showing signs of disengagement from its nuclear and missile development program, signaling a major change in U.S. policy in dealing with the regime.