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Pence upstaged by 2 Koreas' efforts to warm ties

AP  |  Gangneung (South Korea) 

US Vice Mike Pence's efforts to keep from stealing the show at the Winter proved to be short-lived, quickly drowned out by the images of the two Koreas marching and competing together, as the South appeared to look favourably on warming ties on the

Pence spent the days leading up to the games warning that the North was trying to "hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games" with its "propaganda."

But the North was still welcomed with open arms to what South Korean Moon Jae-in called "of peace" and the US appeared to be the one left out in the cold.

Moon was all smiles today as he greeted Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, the country's 90-year-old nominal head of state, for lunch at the presidential residence.

offered an invitation from her brother for Moon to visit the North, in the strongest sign yet of an expanding diplomatic opening opposed by the US.

Pence said yesterday that the US would oppose talks between the two Koreas until the North agreed to open negotiations on ending its nuclear programme, and he was silent today on the of the invitation.

"The vice is grateful that President Moon reaffirmed his strong commitment to the global maximum pressure campaign and for his support for continued sanctions," Pence said when asked about the development.

Moon and Pence spoke while taking in the speedskating competition, but aides did not immediately say whether the invitation came up during the discussion.

At the opening ceremonies yesterday, Pence sat stone- faced in his seat as Moon and North Korean officials stood together with much of the stadium to applaud their joint team of athletes. officials stressed that Pence had applauded only for the American team, but experts said the vice president's refusal to stand could be seen as disrespectful to the hosts.

US officials have been urging to be cautious in its rapprochement with the North a point Pence drilled home in private meetings with Moon on Thursday.

But North Korea's terrible record on human rights and the growing threat from its nuclear weapons program appeared out of mind.

Even Japanese Shinzo Abe, who has shared the American skepticism of warming inter-Korean relations and pressed Moon against falling for the North's "smile diplomacy," greeted

Pence arrived late and stayed for just five minutes and did not interact with the delegation from the North at a Friday VIP reception for delegation leaders.

"The Koreans will think it's a mood kill," said Frank Jannuzi, an expert on East at the Mansfield Foundation in He criticised the for straining too hard to signal disgust of Kim Jong Un's government.

"The grievances that the world has about are very legitimate. But the Olympic moment that President Moon is trying to generate here is not a time to nurse those grievances," Jannuzi said. "It's a time to focus on messages of reconciliation and peace."

As it turned out, with the two Koreas celebrating a moment of unity, the was left outmaneuvered by an adversary and out of step with an ally.

Past administrations have been wary of efforts by to drive a wedge between and Seoul, but still generally supportive of efforts to calm tensions at the heavily militarised border that divides the Koreas.

Although has been a trenchant supporter of Trump's campaign of "maximum pressure" against North Korea, Moon has been keen to use the to pry open the door to better relations with its adversary. has jumped at the opportunity.

The downside for is that it could expose growing differences with on the best way to deal with North Korea and achieve the ultimate goal of denuclearization.

American officials attempted to paint a rosier picture of Friday's ceremony as showing solidarity among allies. They stressed the North Koreans in the VIP box had watched Pence, Moon and Abe hold a running discussion in the front row for the more than two-hour ceremonies.

The officials, who spoke on condition because they were not authorized to discuss the US approach publicly, also denied that Pence had been blindsided by the seating arrangement with the North Koreans in the row behind him, allowing to be easily pictured in profile next to the

Although some aides were leery that the arrangement could produce less-than-ideal optics for Pence, there was no concerted effort to lobby their Korean counterparts for a change, in part out of fear of upsetting the Olympic hosts, said one

"It's not a complete disaster," said James Schoff, former senior for East policy. He supported Pence's moves to meet with North Korean defectors, paying respects at a memorial to the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack blamed on the North.

Pence also invited as his guest the father of US college student Otto Warmbier, who died after he was imprisoned by North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster.

But Schoff said that by pouring cold water on hopes for better inter-Korean relations, Pence's stance could be viewed as critical of Moon's outreach to North Korea.

"The fact that's become the narrative is due in part to things that he's said and his body language," Schoff said. While Moon did not hesitate to shake hands and smile with his North Korean visitors, Pence didn't appear to even look in the direction of the North Korean delegation during the Friday event.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sat, February 10 2018. 18:25 IST