PYONGYANG — North Korea won’t be talking to the US delegation on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Jo Yong Sam, department director general of North Korea’s foreign ministry, said the country had never “begged the US for dialogue” and wasn’t about to start now, according to state-run news agency KCNA.
“We have no intention to meet the US side during our visit to South Korea,” Jo said in a terse statement Thursday.
Jo’s blunt refusal came as hundreds gathered in the coastal town of Gangwon to welcome North Korea’s delegation to the Olympic Village.
Athletes, surrounded by dozens of cheerleaders, watched as the North Korean national standard was raised alongside the Olympic flag, while band members dressed in red coats and gold trim played traditional music.
Jo’s comments follow mixed signals from the US about its willingness to talk. US Vice President Mike Pence appeared to leave the door open for negotiations earlier this week when he said, “I haven’t requested any meeting. But we’ll see what happens.”
The Vice President followed that with threats to impose some of the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions ever against North Korea in a bid to end its nuclear and ballistic missile program “once and for all.”
North Korea’s delegation is being led by Kim Yong Nam, one of North Korea’s most powerful politicians.
His presence, along with Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, had caused some observers to hope for a diplomatic breakthrough while the two North Koreans are in close proximity to their US and South Korean counterparts.
Diplomatic sources with deep knowledge of North Korea’s activities told CNN that despite outwardly positive signs and indications of a “charm offensive” from Pyongyang, what’s “unclear and bizarre” is there has not been any diplomatic movement shown by North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in line with current events.
Sources told CNN that the sending of ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim’s sibling Kim Yo Jong reads as more of a symbolic act than any concrete diplomatic initiative by North Korea.
Since diplomatic efforts are “almost zero,” sources said this may signal a “calm before the storm,” with North Korea quietly preparing its next moves for after the Olympics while the global spotlight shines on its delegation in South Korea.
Before departing for Asia, US Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading his country’s Olympic delegation, fueled speculation of a potential meeting by telling reporters that he had not ruled out meeting with the North Koreans on the sidelines in Pyeongchang.
Pence said President Donald Trump “always believes in talking,” adding that North Korea “can have a better future than the militaristic path, the path of provocation and confrontation that it’s on. Better for its own people, better for the region, and better for peace.”
However, since arriving in the region, Pence has taken a more strident tone, saying American “resolve” had not wavered in bringing international pressure against Pyongyang.
“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” he said after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday. “We’ll be there to cheer our athletes, but we’ll also be there to stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.”
For its part, South Korea has welcomed the presence of Kim’s sister in the delegation, saying it “shows (Pyongyang’s) willingness to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula along with a message of celebration.”
“It is significant that the delegation also includes Kim Yo Jong, who is Chairman Kim Jong Un’s sister and holds an important position in the Workers’ Party of Korea,” the country’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
The high-level delegation will depart Pyongyang on a private jet Friday, and is expected to arrive at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport at 1:30 p.m. local time.
The world may get a preview of North Korea’s post-Olympics plans at a grand military parade in Pyongyang Thursday, one the eve of the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
Nonproliferation experts said during Thursday’s parade it’s possible Pyongyang could show some mock-ups of their newer technology, like a new long-range, solid-fueled ballistic missile.
A diplomatic source told CNN the event is expected to include of “hundreds” of missiles and rockets in an attempt “to scare the hell out of the Americans.”
Experts also previously predicted North Korea will soon resume its missile and nuclear testing, possibly even including an above-ground atomic test over the Pacific.
“They’re too close to the end of the program to simply stop and give up,” Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, told CNN.
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