WASHINGTON — They stood not 10 toes aside in a V.I.P. field: the 58-year-old vp of the USA and the 30-year-old sister of North Korea’s reclusive dictator, representatives of two nations locked in a cussed, ever extra perilous nuclear standoff.
However Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong stared fixedly forward in the course of the chilly, blustery opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. There could be no dramatic handshake to upstage the athletes, flag carriers, drummers or torchbearers.
The politics behind this close to miss had been set every week earlier in Washington, a senior administration official mentioned, when President Trump instructed Mr. Pence, in a gathering with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and the nationwide safety adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, that he was open to a gathering between the vp and the North Koreans — however provided that Mr. Pence delivered a troublesome message, and provided that the encounter was away from TV cameras.
Neither of these situations utilized on Friday. As an official touring with Mr. Pence instructed reporters, it might have been robust to speak “geopolitics over pace skating.” In any occasion, neither Ms. Kim nor Kim Yong-nam, 90, the president of North Korea’s Supreme Folks’s Meeting, who accompanied her to the Video games, made an strategy towards Mr. Pence.
And but the tableau was nonetheless historic — the seen manifestation of a fantastic contest taking part in out between the USA and North Korea over how you can form South Korea’s perceptions of North-South relations within the unsure interval after the Olympics are over.
Mr. Pence, seated subsequent to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, projected a picture of solidarity with America’s allies towards an aggressive North Korea. Ms. Kim, seated a row behind them, introduced a message of unity from her brother Kim Jong-un, changing into the primary member of the Kim dynasty to go to the South because the Korean Battle.
Mr. Moon, administration officers mentioned, needed Mr. Pence to shake palms with the North Koreans, viewing it as a strategy to additional the South’s diplomatic engagement with the North. So did Mr. Tillerson, who has been fumbling for his personal channel to the North. However Mr. Trump, the officers mentioned, was suspicious of a publicity stunt that will play to North Korea’s benefit.
“A handshake would have been a dramatic picture, no matter the way it in the end performed out,” mentioned Evan S. Medeiros, a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama. “President Moon would have run with it and Kim Jong-un would have maximized the South’s enthusiasm. Washington would then have spent a number of months attempting to stroll it again.”
Certainly, Mr. Pence spent a lot of his journey to Asia shoring up the USA’ ties with South Korea and Japan, and flinging sharp phrases at North Korea. In Tokyo, he warned that his nation would quickly impose harsh new sanctions on the North. The timing of these sanctions was unclear, although one official recommended that they could take some time.
“The time has come for North Korea to completely abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, to acknowledge there isn’t any future as a member of the household of countries for a nuclear-empowered North Korea,” Mr. Pence mentioned to reporters after visiting a memorial to the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy warship sunk by North Korea in 2010, killing 46 sailors.
On the memorial, Mr. Pence additionally met with 4 North Korean defectors, together with Fred Warmbier, the daddy of Otto F. Warmbier, the school scholar from Cincinnati who fell into an irreversible coma after being detained in Pyongyang, and died quickly after being returned to his mother and father.
“It was vital to be right here at present to take a seat with defectors who’ve escaped essentially the most tyrannical regime on the planet and listen to their tales, and see the tears of their eyes and in addition to see the aftermath of the militarism that was as soon as once more on show in Pyongyang yesterday with yet one more navy parade,” Mr. Pence mentioned. (He added, nonetheless, that he heartily supported Mr. Trump’s need for a navy parade on the streets of Washington.)
On the opening ceremony, White Home officers mentioned, Mr. Pence was keenly conscious of the optics. They mentioned that if he had been ducking a gathering with the North Koreans, he may simply have moved to the field the place the American delegation, together with Mr. Warmbier, was seated. However that will have arrange one other resonant picture: Mr. Moon in his field with Ms. Kim.
Whereas Mr. Pence chatted together with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, officers famous that the North Koreans sat by themselves, although Mr. Moon made some extent of shaking palms with Ms. Kim.
Handshakes — or the shortage thereof — have lengthy performed an outsize position in diplomacy. In 1954, a yr after the top of the Korean Battle, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake the hand of the Chinese language premier, Zhou Enlai, at a convention in Geneva. For many years, Mr. Zhou nursed bitterness on the slight — a breach that was solely totally healed when President Richard M. Nixon clasped his hand in Beijing in 1972.
Mr. Obama made an artwork of shaking palms with American rivals: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya in 2009; Raúl Castro of Cuba in 2013, on the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. In 2013, nonetheless, Mr. Obama didn’t shake palms with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on the United Nations Common Meeting, in a close to miss that carried echoes of Mr. Pence’s nonencounter on Friday.
There had been feverish hypothesis a few assembly, fueled partly by the White Home, which made it clear that Mr. Obama could be open to at least one, if he occurred to stumble upon Mr. Rouhani. Ultimately, the Iranians balked, apprehensive concerning the political fallout again residence although a couple of days later, earlier than leaving New York, Mr. Rouhani did phone Mr. Obama.
Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Pence has yet one more probability for a history-making encounter, on Saturday. However his aides instructed reporters that they knew of no plans for a gathering.