PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Forget an Olympic truce. The rhetoric war between North Korea and the Trump administration hasn’t skipped a beat in Pyeongchang.
In its first reports about the Games, North Korea’s state-run media slammed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday for what it called “shameful” and “snobbish” behavior not in line with the spirit of the Olympics. Pence fired off a tweet calling the North’s participation in the Games a “propaganda charade” and saying the world must not “turn a blind eye to the oppression and threats of the Kim regime.”
Pence and the North Koreans have been an awkward presence at the Games to say the least.
Though it has no real medal contenders and sent only 22 athletes, North Korea has turned out to be a major political player in Pyeongchang. It has dispatched a delegation of nearly 500 people – mostly musicians, dancers, and an all-female cheering squad – and has been pushing its participation as a sign of willingness to work with Seoul, through greater exchanges, to ease what has been a year of very high tensions on the peninsula.
To that end, athletes from both Koreas marched together into the Olympic Stadium on Friday behind a blue-and-white “unification“’ flag. They are fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team. And on Friday, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself, arrived for the first-ever visit to the South by a member of the ruling Kim dynasty.
President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations to South Korea for playing host a day before the Games began, but had been silent on the topic since.
Wary that the North is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, he made a point of having no part of any of the North’s brand of for-Koreans-by-Koreans detente.
Members of his entourage have disputed reports that he deliberately went out of his way to avoid contact, but he missed a group photo and arrived late to a dinner for the visiting dignitaries. He made it clear from the start that he came to the Games with a message of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang. And Pyongyang, for its part, testily announced it had no interest in meeting him to begin with.
Pyeongchang, alas, is a very small place. Contact was inevitable. And the unified entry of the Korean athletes at the opening ceremony presented a truly cringeworthy moment.
The athletes elicited a standing ovation by most leaders in the VIP box, including Moon and Kim’s sister. The Pences, seated next to Moon and just a row ahead of Kim and the North’s 90-year-old nominal head of state, remained in their seats, unsmiling.
Deepening the odd-man-out optics for Pence, Moon and Kim, smiling broadly, exchanged a handshake and cheered the team enthusiastically. That, predictably, was the image that North Korea’s main newspaper put on its front pages.
In an article titled “Shameful behavior using sacred Olympics for confrontational schemes,” the ruling party’s Rodong Sinmun daily accused Pence of “snobbishly” asking South Korea to arrange the Olympic events so that he wouldn’t run into North Korean delegates. The article reiterated that the North’s decision to send delegates to the South had nothing to do with an attempt to approach the United States for talks.
“Unlike the United States, we do not engage in dirty and messy acts to abuse sports events like the Olympics for political purposes,” the newspaper said in an article attributed to an unnamed writer.
Pence’s tweeted day-after position: “The U.S. will not allow the propaganda charade by the North Korean regime to go unchallenged on the world stage.”
“This is the first time Mike Pence has been accused of being a snob,” said an aide to the vice president, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the North Korean reports.
After all the politics, Pyeongchang may soon be able to return its focus to – what is everyone here for again? – the sports.
Pence was scheduled to leave for the United States on Saturday night. The North’s political delegation was set to leave Sunday.