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North Korean diplomat accuses White House of seeking confrontation at the Olympics

The Olympic torch relay comes to Goseong at the Gate of Inter-Korea Transit Office near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Goseong, Gangwon province, South Korea on Jan. 26, 2018.

LEE YOUNG-HO/SIPA USA/TNS

By JENNA JOHNSON | The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2018

A North Korean official this week accused the White House of advocating for a "confrontation . . . at the sacred place of Olympic Games" in South Korea next month, after a senior White House official said last week that Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Games in an effort to counter attempts by North Korea to "hijack" the event by pushing its own propaganda.

"This only shows how weak their motives are and how shameful their ways of thinking are," Pak Song Il, the ambassador for North Korea's mission to the United Nations, said in an interview Monday night with The Washington Post.

Jarrod Agen, Pence's deputy chief of staff and communications director, said Tuesday morning that "no matter the circumstances or occasion, the vice president will not hesitate to speak out against North Korea when they are being dishonest or deceptive in their practices and provocations against freedom."

In an unusual move, Pak reached out to The Post on Monday and asked for the opportunity to respond to a report published Jan. 23 that contained comments about North Korea's participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics made by a senior White House official who was aboard Air Force Two with Pence as he returned from the Middle East.

In the Jan. 23 article, the senior White House official - who did not want to be identified in discussing the vice president's strategy - said that Pence has "grave concerns" that Kim "will hijack the messaging around the Olympics" and present a false view of North Korea and life there. The official said Pence plans to travel to the Games to seek "truth on the world stage, which is the opposite of what the North Koreans do."

North Korea does not have an embassy in the United States, as the two countries have no diplomatic relationship, but it does have two diplomats who work out of an office inside North Korea's mission to the United Nations in New York. This "New York Channel" has provided a private way for U.S. officials to communicate with Pyongyang about the fate of American prisoners held by Kim Jong Un's regime and the overall relationship between the two countries.

North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics was announced Jan. 9 after 11 hours of talks between North and South Korea, the first time in more than two years that the neighboring countries had formally communicated in this way. In those talks, North Korean officials made clear that their nuclear weapons program was not up for discussion, and Pyongyang's chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, said that "all our weapons - including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles - are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia."

The vice president's office said that statement is evidence that North Korea has not changed its ways, even if it is peacefully participating in the Olympics. A senior White House official said Tuesday morning that "everything the North Koreans do at the Olympics is a charade to cover up the fact that they are the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet."

"The Kim regime entered Olympic discussions declaring all their nuclear weapons are aimed only at the United States," Agen said. "Much of the world agrees with the United States, as several nations have joined together to back up our sanctions and put maximum pressure on the Kim regime."

Aboard Air Force Two last week, the senior White House official told reporters that Pence was troubled by lighthearted reports about the seven-member delegation that Kim sent to South Korea to inspect Olympic facilities, where the North's pop orchestra will play next month. The group included Hyon Song Wol, a popular singer in North Korea's Moranbong Band and a rising political star in Kim's regime. Her visit was excitedly welcomed by many South Koreans, and the senior White House official said that the "murderous state" of North Korea should not be allowed to soften its image with gestures that might seem "cute or nice or touching" but do not accurately reflect the oppressive way of life under Kim's regime.

Pak, who declined to address any issues other than the Olympics during the interview Monday, said he does not understand the vice president's concerns, as communicated by the White House official, and that the delegation of musicians "has nothing to do with . . . propaganda." Pak said he is not aware of any other countries participating in the Winter Olympics who share the same concerns about North Korea.

"Our decision to send our art delegation to South Korea during the Olympic Games are the good manifestation of our brotherly love to share the pleasure of the auspicious event," Pak said, "and this is also the manifestation of our brotherly love to make North and South Korea to go forward proudly, hand in hand."

Pak said that Kim views the Winter Olympics as an opportunity for "demonstrating our nation's prestige." He said the statement from the senior White House official last week shows that the United States "regards itself as the only superpower of the world" and proves that there's a high level of "hostility" that the United States holds against North Korea. He repeatedly accused the White House of "attempting to advocate a confrontation" at the Olympics and said that such action would "make the situation strained again in the region of the Korean Peninsula."

On Monday night, Seoul's Unification Ministry announced that North Korea had suddenly canceled plans for a pre-Olympics joint cultural event at the North's Diamond Mountain on Feb. 4 in protest of South Korean news media coverage of its participation in the Olympics, according to the Associated Press. The two countries are still expected to hold a joint training session for non-Olympic skiers at a North Korean ski resort this week, and North Korea still plans to send its pop orchestra and singers to the South to perform during the Games, which begin Feb. 9.

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