World News

No Handshakes as Vice President Avoids Kim Jong Un’s Sister at Games

Posted February 9, 2018 10:57 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — They stood not 10 feet apart in a VIP box: the 58-year-old vice president of the United States and the 30-year-old sister of North Korea’s reclusive dictator, representatives of two countries locked in a stubborn, ever more perilous nuclear standoff.

But Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong stared fixedly ahead during the chilly, blustery opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. There would be no dramatic handshake to upstage the athletes, flag carriers, drummers or torchbearers.

The politics behind this near miss were set a week earlier in Washington, a senior administration official said, when President Donald Trump told Pence, in a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, that he was open to a meeting between the vice president and the North Koreans — but only if Pence delivered a tough message, and only if the encounter was away from TV cameras.

Neither of those conditions applied Friday. As an official traveling with Pence told reporters, it would have been tough to talk “geopolitics over speedskating.” In any event, neither Kim nor Kim Yong Nam, 90, president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, who accompanied her to the games, made an approach toward Pence.

And yet the tableau was still historic — the visible manifestation of a great contest playing out between the United States and North Korea over how to shape South Korea’s perceptions of North-South relations in the uncertain period after the Olympics are over.

Pence, seated next to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, projected an image of solidarity with the United States’ allies against an aggressive North Korea. Kim Yo Jong, seated a row behind them, brought a message of unity from her brother Kim Jong Un, becoming the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit the South since the Korean War.

Moon, administration officials said, wanted Pence to shake hands with the North Koreans, viewing it as a way to further the South’s diplomatic engagement with the North. So did Tillerson, who has been fumbling for his own channel to the North. But Trump, the officials said, was suspicious of a publicity stunt that would play to North Korea’s advantage.

“A handshake would have been a dramatic image, regardless of how it ultimately played out,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama. “President Moon would have run with it and Kim Jong Un would have maximized the South’s enthusiasm. Washington would then have spent several months trying to walk it back.”

Indeed, Pence spent much of his trip to Asia shoring up the United States’ ties with South Korea and Japan, and flinging sharp words at North Korea. In Tokyo, he warned that his country would soon impose harsh new sanctions on the North. The timing of those sanctions was unclear, though one official suggested that they might take a while.

“The time has come for North Korea to permanently abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, to recognize there is no future as a member of the family of nations for a nuclear-empowered North Korea,” Pence said to reporters after visiting a memorial to the Cheonan, a South Korean navy warship sunk by North Korea in 2010, killing 46 sailors.

At the memorial, Pence also met with four North Korean defectors, along with Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto F. Warmbier, the college student from Cincinnati who fell into an irreversible coma after being detained in Pyongyang, and died soon after being returned to his parents.

“It was important to be here today to sit with defectors who have escaped the most tyrannical regime on the planet and hear their stories, and see the tears in their eyes and also to see the aftermath of the militarism that was once again on display in Pyongyang yesterday with one more military parade,” Pence said. (He added, however, that he heartily supported Trump’s desire for a military parade on the streets of Washington.)

At the opening ceremony, White House officials said, Pence was keenly aware of the optics. They said that if he were ducking a meeting with the North Koreans, he could easily have moved to the box where the U.S. delegation, including Warmbier, was seated. But that would have set up another resonant image: Moon in his box with Kim Yo Jong.

While Pence chatted with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, officials noted that the North Koreans sat by themselves, though Moon made a point of shaking hands with Kim. Handshakes — or the lack thereof — have long played an outsize role in diplomacy. In 1954, a year after the end of the Korean War, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake the hand of the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, at a conference in Geneva. For decades, Zhou nursed bitterness at the slight — a breach that was only fully healed when President Richard M. Nixon clasped his hand in Beijing in 1972.

Obama made an art of shaking hands with U.S. rivals: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya in 2009; Raúl Castro of Cuba in 2013, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. In 2013, however, Obama failed to shake hands with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at the U.N. General Assembly, in a near miss that carried echoes of Pence’s nonencounter Friday.

There had been feverish speculation about a meeting, fueled in part by the White House, which made it clear that Obama would be open to one, if he happened to bump into Rouhani. In the end, the Iranians balked, worried about the political fallout back home though a few days later, before leaving New York, Rouhani did telephone Obama.

Like Obama, Pence has one more chance for a history-making encounter, on Saturday. But his aides told reporters that they knew of no plans for a meeting.