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Olympics show U.S. and South Korea out of sync on North Korea

Fireworks opened the 2018 Olympic Games, but competed for attention with a diplomatic spectacle. The leaders of South Korea and North Korea showed off a historic handshake, while Vice President Mike Pence kept his distance, underscoring apparent divisions between Washington and Seoul. John Yang gets two views from former State Department officials Anthony Ruggiero and Frank Jannuzi.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The opening ceremony is over, and Pyeongchang Winter Games are about to begin in earnest.

    But, as John Yang reports, among the most closely watched early Olympic events is global diplomacy.

  • John Yang:

    Fireworks opened the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, but competed for attention with a diplomatic spectacle, a historic handshake between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea's nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, at a welcoming reception. The greeting served to underscore the apparent divisions between Washington and Seoul.

    Vice President Pence made a brief appearance, too, alongside Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but he avoided the North Korean delegation, and left early.

    The Wall Street journal's Andrew Jeong is covering the Games.

  • Andrew Jeong:

    The conservative media here are interpreting this as a snub. Other outlets are being careful, because it still isn't really clear what message the vice president was trying to put out there.

  • John Yang:

    During the opening ceremony, Mr. Pence sat just feet away from Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. She's the first member of North's ruling family to set foot in South Korea.

    Mr. Pence again kept his distance, but South Korea's Moon greeted her as the two countries' athletes marched side by side under a single flag. Later, a North Korean hockey player was among the Olympic torchbearers.

    It was a striking show of unity after a year of rising tensions over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs. The Olympics are often an escape from world affairs. This year, the geopolitical subtext is hard to avoid. South Korean President Moon sees the Games as a chance to thaw relations with the North.

    He met with Vice President Pence yesterday.

  • President Moon Jae-In:

    (Through interpreter) I would like to make efforts by using this opportunity as much as I can to bring North Korea back to the dialogue table. I always emphasize that the most important thing in this process is the airtight cooperation between South Korea and the United States.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Pence has emphasized the Trump administration's harder line, warning against what he calls the North's charm offensive.

    He used his own symbolism today, meeting with defectors from the North, along with Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died last year after imprisonment in North Korea. The vice president reinforced the U.S. view of North Korea in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    We're going to make it crystal-clear that our military, the Japanese self-defense forces, our allies here in South Korea, all of our allies across the region are fully prepared to defend…

  • Lester Holt:

    Military options?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Well, to defend our nations and to take what action is necessary to defend our homeland.

  • John Yang:

    Andrew Jeong of The Wall Street Journal says Japan is also taking a tougher stance than the South Koreans.

  • Andrew Jeong:

    President Moon is saying, yes, it's kind of the time for talks, because, otherwise, denuclearization is never going to happen. But Japan is saying more pressure. I think that is more aligned to what the Trump administration is thinking.

  • John Yang:

    The split will be evident again tomorrow, when President Moon hosts the North Korean delegation for lunch, and Mr. Pence will be in Seoul, preparing to return to Washington.

    We now get two views on this Olympic diplomacy.

    Anthony Ruggiero worked in the State Department and the Treasury Department. His focus was on fighting the financing of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. And Frank Jannuzi, also a State Department veteran, he was part on the U.S. delegation for talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thanks for being here.

    Mr. Jannuzi, let me start with you.

    Did Vice President Pence miss an opportunity by not engaging with the North Korean, even just pleasantries?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    He did. His behavior was boorish and politically tone-deaf.

    If President Moon Jae-in can shake hands with Kim Yong-nam, if our close ally Shinzo Abe, the leader of Japan, can shake hands, surely, the vice president can do the simple courtesy of not essentially showing up to the party and then sulking.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Ruggiero, boorish and tone-deaf?

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    Yes, I'm not sure I would go that far.

    I think that we have to keep the focus here on North Korea and its nuclear weapons and missile programs. And they have no interest in talking to the United States, so whether the vice president really shakes his hand is really immaterial.

    The issue here is that North Korea is the one that really wants to take over or hijack these Games to legitimize its regime.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    But I think it's precisely because we want to keep the focus on North Korea, its horrendous human rights record, its poor record in response to U.N. sanctions for their missile and nuclear programs, that the president — the vice president made such a grievous mistake.

    He's made himself the story. He's made himself and his treatment of our South Korean ally the story. The South Koreans held these Olympics. They're holding these Olympics with an aspiration of peace and really beginning a process of reconciliation and dialogue with the North.

    And for the United States to in any way obstruct that effort, I think, is really doing a disservice to our alliance.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Ruggiero, you say that the North Koreans are trying to hijack these Olympics. Should the South Koreans have said when Kim Jong-un said he was going to send his sister, thanks, but no thanks?

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    Definitely.

    She's a sanctioned person. She's involved in North Korea's propaganda to its own citizens. I mean, she is complicit in this regime's horrible human rights record. And, frankly, the North Koreans shouldn't even be participating in these Olympics.

    During apartheid, South Africa wasn't invited to the Olympics. North Korea shouldn't be given the same courtesy, or it should be subjected to a ban as well. It's not clear to me why we would want to invite a country like this to the Olympics.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    I strongly disagree.

    Again, Anthony, sanctions are a means to an end. They're not an end in and of themselves. And the only reason we have sanctions on North Korea, it's not just to punish them. It's to change their behavior. So when you have an opportunity to engage, when you have an opportunity to use the leverage created by sanctions to possibly explore openings to address the hard security issues and the North-South issues, we should seize it.

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    Well, I agree we should change their behavior, but let's not forget they did a military parade only two days ago. That hasn't changed their behavior.

    And even though they're not doing nuclear or missile tests, their missile and nuclear programs continue even as we speak today. So, they have not changed their behavior at all. And I would just say, things like prohibiting South Africa from the Olympics are what eventually got the change in behavior we were looking for.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    I think what got South Korea — South Africa to the table were severe economic sanctions.

    And I certainly support those efforts to impose tough economic sanctions on North Korea. But a military parade in Pyongyang is not a threat to us.

  • John Yang:

    And Mr. Pence also took with him Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned in North Korea, came home to America in a coma, and eventually died.

    He took him to a meeting with North Korean defectors. Do you think that was too aggressive, Mr. Jannuzi?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, look, when I was at Amnesty International, I led efforts here in Washington to try to shine a spotlight on North Korea's horrendous human rights effort.

    And I celebrate President Trump's efforts to put the human rights issue on the table, but there is a time and place for everything. And if we're going to nurse grievances at the Olympics, rather than try to seize this opportunity to create a mood for reconciliation, I think that is a mistake. The timing of it is wrong.

    The sentiment is, I think, very well-intentioned and laudable.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Ruggiero, bad timing?

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    No, absolutely not.

    We should be focused on North Korea's human rights record. And bringing Fred Warmbier, I think, is the right approach by the administration. We need to continue to shine the spotlight. It's disappointing that South Korea's own president, who is a human rights — former human rights lawyer, is not as focused on this as President Trump is.

    So, I think it's admirable that President — Vice President Pence did that.

  • John Yang:

    Mr. Ruggiero, you say that you feel the North Koreans are trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. How real do you think that wedge is and what are the consequences?

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    Well, the conversation we're having here.

    This is what Kim Jong-un wants. I think they want a wedge between the United States and South Korea. The other thing that they want is to sabotage the sanctions program. It's finally showing some success. I think Kim Jong-un has felt that pressure. And he knows that if he is talking to South Korea, that it will be harder for the United States to go to countries and ask them to do things above the letter of the law, which is really what we need on the sanctions parameter, what we have seen so far.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    I agree, Anthony, that the sanctions are beginning to show some traction.

    And that's precisely why we should be pursuing the opportunities that may exist to pivot from the sanctions, explore what's possible, see if the North Koreans have changed their attitude. If not, that's fine. Keep the pressure on.

  • John Yang:

    Frank Jannuzi, Anthony Ruggiero, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Anthony Ruggiero:

    Thank you.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Thank you.

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