By Agence France-Presse
Washington will soon unveil its “toughest sanctions ever” on North Korea, US Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday, adding that the Pyongyang regime would not be allowed to “hijack” the upcoming Olympics.
Speaking in Japan before attending the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in South Korea, Pence pledged that Washington would “intensify its maximum pressure campaign” on the North, working with Tokyo.
“I’m announcing today that the United States will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever,” he said, without giving further details.
Pence’s three-day visit to Japan came as Washington seeks to bolster ties with its allies in the region and maintain pressure on the regime in Pyongyang despite a recent thaw on the peninsula.
“All options are on the table and the US has deployed some of our most advanced military assets to Japan and the wider region to protect our homeland and our allies and we will continue to,” Pence vowed.
To highlight what Washington calls the regime’s human rights “abuses”, the vice president will attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics with the father of the late former North Korea prisoner Otto Warmbier.
The US and North Korea have been locked in a fierce war of words, with US President Donald Trump mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as “rocket man” and the young dictator threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the United States.
Kim has taken a more conciliatory tone in 2018, calling for detente with the South Koreans and accepting an invitation for his country to participate in what is being billed as the “peace Olympics”.
The two Koreas held a rare high-level meeting last month and the North’s ceremonial head of state is due to arrive Friday, the highest-ranking Pyongyang official ever to visit the South.
‘Hijack the Games’
Nevertheless, the situation on the peninsula remains tense and it is unclear how long any respite in tensions will last after the Games, especially when the US and the South resume their delayed joint annual military exercises — a perennial irritant for Pyongyang.
But US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday rebuffed suggestions that the odds of war with North Korea had risen under Trump’s presidency, insisting the focus was resolutely on diplomacy.
“As far as the situation with Korea, it is firmly in the diplomatic lane,” Mattis told reporters at the White House, when asked if the prospect of conflict with Pyongyang was any nearer than when Trump took office a year ago.
“We have seen much stronger diplomatic action,” Mattis said, citing a recent string of unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolutions aimed at ramping up the pressure on the Kim regime.
For his part, Abe said that Japan and the US had “confirmed… that we can never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
“I appreciate the North-South talks toward the success of the Pyeongchang Olympics. But on the other hand, we must squarely face the fact that North Korea continues to pursue nuclear and missile programmes,” the Japanese leader said.
Abe added that the allies would urge other countries not to be “captivated by the charm offensive of North Korea.”
“A major military parade is expected in Pyongyang tomorrow. Provocative actions are continuing,” he said.
En route to Japan, Pence declined to rule out a meeting with the North Korean delegation also attending the opening ceremony, offering the faintest hope of a diplomatic breakthrough.
“I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” Pence said during a stop in Alaska.
However, he appeared to take a tougher line in Tokyo, saying that North Korea must not be allowed to “hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games.”
“We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region,” he said.
‘Sport teaches us’
In contrasting comments, Pope Francis on Wednesday praised the Olympic rapprochement.
“The traditional Olympic truce this year takes on special importance,” he said at his weekly general audience.
“This gives us hope of a better world where conflicts are resolved peacefully through dialogue and mutual respect, as sport also teaches us.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pence inspected Japan’s missile defence system and stressed the “unwavering” commitment to what he called a “critical” alliance.
He will address troops at a US air base outside Tokyo on Thursday before heading on to South Korea.