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Pence To Travel To South Korea To See Start Of The Olympics


Later this week, the Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea - ski jumping, figure skating, curling and a total break from geopolitical dealing, right? Not so much. There's a backdrop of nuclear tensions on the peninsula, clearly. The North and South, though, plan to keep talking while the games get underway. The U.S., though, also wants to get involved in those talks. And it just so happens Vice President Mike Pence is headed to South Korea this week. NPR's Elise Hu joins us now from Seoul. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: Before we get to Mike Pence, remind us where the talks stand between North and South Korea right now. There is an opening that's happening, right?

HU: Yeah. The fact that they're talking at all is a lot of progress because there was a two-year period in which the two Koreas weren't. And so those talks began in earnest right after a New Year's speech by Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. And since then, the progress has been that North Korea will wind up participating in the upcoming Olympic Games being hosted by South Korea in Pyeongchang.

And North and South are making history with an inter-Korean women's hockey team. This is the first combined Korean Olympic team ever. And North Korean dignitaries are also going to come right over the border to attend the games. This will happen at the same time other world leaders, like Vice President Pence, will be around. Pence is on his way to this region, and he will be attending the opening ceremony on Friday.


HU: Now, you know North Korea's obviously usually isolated by the international community. But it really wants to take this opportunity to show off its performance tradition...

MARTIN: Right.

HU: ...Its orchestra, its taekwondo troops.

MARTIN: So Mike Pence will take those in, watch these performances. And he's clearly there for this very symbolic role. But is there anything else to his visit, considering that these talks are happening at the same time?

HU: Yeah. He's going to first make a stop in Japan, which is home to about 50,000 U.S. military members. He's going to meet with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, and reaffirm the U.S. security commitment not only to Japan but also to South Korea, which hosts a lot of U.S. bases. The vice president's aides, though, have said that at the Olympics, what he wants to do is to really use the time in Korea to remind the world that just because North Korea is going to have its figure skaters out competing and a cheering squad - that the regime running the country is brutal and totalitarian.

And one obvious sign of that is going to be who Vice President Pence is with. He's expected to attend the opening ceremony with the father of the deceased American college student Otto Warmbier. Now, Warmbier, as you probably recall, died after being imprisoned in North Korea for just over a year.


HU: The reasons for his death are still unclear. They'll probably always be unclear. So that's going to be a really public reminder of the regime being secret and brutal at the same time that North Korea's dignitaries, its leaders will be in the audience.

MARTIN: This is also potentially awkward for Mike Pence and the U.S. in this moment because the North and the South are holding these bilateral talks. The U.S. isn't part of this.

HU: Yeah. There is some diplomatic needle threading necessary here because the U.S. and South Korea are aligned. And they need to be in close coordination since South Korea hosts so many U.S. bases and some 30,000 American servicemen. Both are going to say publicly that the alliance remains strong. But there is a difference now in terms of approach to this North Korea question. The Trump administration is really hard line - a lot of pressure and sanctions. South Korea is favoring more engagement, trying to get North Korea to the negotiating table. So this problem remains. And despite what we're going to see at the games between the two Koreas, the big nuclear question still exists.

MARTIN: Obviously, yeah. NPR's Elise Hu reporting for us this morning from Seoul. Thanks so much, Elise.

HU: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER'S "YOU MAY BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.