Seoul, South Korea: North Korea has no intention of meeting US officials during the Winter Olympics that start on February 9, the KCNA news agency reported, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
US vice president Mike Pence, who described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime on February 7, flies in to South Korea on February 8 ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with North Korea.
The ceremony will also be attended by a senior delegation of North Korean officials, including the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un and the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
“We have never begged for dialogue with the United States and it will be the same going forward,” KCNA reported on February 8, citing Cho Yong Sam, director-general of the North American department of North Korea’s foreign ministry.
“To be clear, we have no intention of meeting with the US during our visit to South Korea”, and no plans to use the Winter Olympics as a political vehicle, Cho said.
Speaking after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on his way to South Korea, Pence said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever”.
US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the sanctions would be unveiled “in the coming weeks” and urged all countries to fully implement existing UN sanctions and to back the US pressure campaign by expelling North Korean “financial facilitators and trade reps”.
North Korea is set to mark the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.
Pence will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul later on February 8. On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, he will 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.
Pence is taking the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months.
Kim Yo Jong, the 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader, will be sitting in the same stadium as VIP guests along with ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam.
She will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official and was blacklisted last year by the US Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.
Japan’s Abe, whose nation has been within range of North Korean missiles for decades, will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for hosts South Korea.
South Korea asked the United Nations on Wednesday for an exemption to allow a UN sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.
A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on February 7 to support athletes from the two sides at the Games. The group included a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.
Preliminary competition at the Games begins on February 8, with events including curling and ski jumping.
Organisers have already been battling some challenges, including a stomach virus that has affected dozens of staff and a small fire near the Olympic village on February 8 that was quickly extinguished.