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By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence departed for a trip to Japan and South Korea on Monday with a stark message that countries should not be fooled by what the White House sees as a North Korean attempt to overshadow the 2018 Olympics with propaganda.
Pence is leading a U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in part to offset efforts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to present what President Donald Trump’s advisers see as a facade of international goodwill and cooperation.
Officials said on Monday that North Korea’s ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam is traveling to South Korea this week, making him the most senior North Korean official to enter the country since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, and raising hopes about potential inter-Korean talks.
Hundreds of North Korean officials, athletes, cheerleaders and artistic performers are also expected to attend.
Despite an optimistic tone by South Korea’s Blue House, which noted North Korea’s resolve to improve relations on the peninsula, White House officials are not convinced.
They want to keep focus on the North’s disregard for calls to halt its nuclear program, flouting U.N. rules, and convince allies to keep putting pressure on Pyongyang.
Pence is bringing a guest to the Olympics to illustrate his point: Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and died in June 2017 from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.
“The vice president will be there with Mr. Warmbier at the Opening Ceremony ... to remind the world of the atrocities that happen in North Korea,” a White House official said.
On Friday Pence will also visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday “we’ll have to see what happens” when asked whether Pence or other officials would meet North Koreans at the Winter Olympic Games.
No such meetings are planned.
“The vice president most certainly is not seeking a meeting with the North Koreans,” a White House official said.
Pence will hold a briefing with U.S. military officials about ballistic missile defense systems in Alaska before proceeding to Japan, where he lands on Tuesday. There he will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visit troops at Yokota Air Base before departing for Seoul on Thursday, where he will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Trump has been critical of a trade imbalance between the United States and South Korea, but the official said trade was not the focus of Pence’s trip.
After the memorial visit, Pence heads to Pyeongchang for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and remains at the Games until Saturday. (Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and James Dalgleish)