White House officials defended Vice President Mike Pence on Friday after he avoided interacting with North Korean officials during the Winter Olympics' opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, South Korea, despite being seated in the same box as the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
"I just don't think you talk geopolitics over speed skating," an aide to the vice president told reporters after the opening ceremonies concluded, adding that Pence has "been very clear what his message is" toward the Kim regime.
Pence was spotted sitting next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in during the opening festivities, with Kim's sister seated directly behind them, an arrangement White House officials later described as deliberate.
"We wanted to show the alliance seated together. We wanted the North Koreans to see the vice president, Abe, and Moon sitting directly in front of them for the opening ceremonies, and it would show that that alliance is strong," said one official.
"Pence sat in the front row and talked to Moon and Abe and their spouses, and the North Koreans sat in the back and didn't talk to anybody, and that image is telling," the official added.
Pence and his wife, Karen, arrived in Pyeongchang on Thursday to lead the U.S. delegation at the Olympic games. The White House has repeatedly confirmed that the vice president has no current plans to meet with North Korean officials during his trip, despite Moon's reported urging for a meeting to take place.
"I don't know what Moon's been angling for," a White House official told reporters.
Shortly before departing for Korea, Pence said the U.S. was expected to unveil "the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever" to further pressure the Kim regime to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"We haven't requested a meeting with North Korea, but if i have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions," Pence said during a visit to Japan.