WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence, dispatched to Asia to blunt a North Korean charm offensive at South Korea’s Olympic Games, said Wednesday that the United States planned to levy the toughest sanctions yet on the North over its nuclear and missile programs.
Mr. Pence’s threat, delivered in Tokyo, came two days after he had signaled openness to meeting with North Korean officials at the Games, somewhat muddying the harsh message he had been sent to project.
But in Japan, the vice president quickly reverted to form. Speaking alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mr. Pence said he planned to “stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.”
“We will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Mr. Pence said. He did not detail the precise timing or content of the sanctions. Analysts said they could target Chinese firms that do business with North Korea.
The Olympics, which open Friday in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang, are likely to showcase the diplomatic thaw between North and South, with the two teams marching together in the opening ceremony under a single flag and competing together in women’s ice hockey.
On Friday, North Korea announced it would send the only sister of its leader, Kim Jong-un, to South Korea as a member of its official delegation. That sets up at least the possibility of a landmark meeting with Mr. Pence, though Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, is under Treasury Department sanctions for her role in North Korea’s human rights abuses, which would make a meeting highly unlikely.
Indeed, Mr. Pence is drawing attention to abuses in North Korea at every stop of his Asia trip. He is bringing as a guest to the Games the father of Otto F. Warmbier, the Ohio college student who was imprisoned in Pyongyang and fell into an irreversible coma. Mr. Warmbier died soon after being returned to his parents, Fred and Cindy, in Cincinnati.
“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” Mr. Pence said. “We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.”
Last week, Mr. Trump paid tribute to Mr. Warmbier’s parents, as well as a North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho, during his State of the Union address. He later gathered Mr. Ji and other defectors in the White House, where they shared harrowing tales of imprisonment, abuse and escape from the North.
“The human rights issue is creeping into their strategy,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former top Asia adviser to President Barack Obama. “The reason this is important is because it raises the question of the regime’s legitimacy.”
Mr. Medeiros played down the significance of Mr. Pence’s remark on Monday in which he said of the North Koreans: “I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens.”
“In retrospect,” Mr. Medeiros said, “it seems he was just being coy because he’s doubling down and tripling down on maximum pressure and the alliance buildup.”
On Thursday, North Korea seemed to take the possibility of a meeting off the table. “We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S., and will be the same in the future,” Jo Yong-sam, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official, was quoted as saying by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
White House officials did not return phone calls requesting comment on Mr. Pence’s plans. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, when asked at a White House briefing about the possibility of a meeting, demurred on whether he supported one.
“Vice President Pence is quite capable of making the call on that there while he’s in Korea,” Mr. Mattis said.
Asked whether the United States had drawn closer to war with North Korea during the Trump administration, Mr. Mattis said that American policy “is firmly in the diplomatic lane,” and that “we have seen much stronger diplomatic action.”
Still, he added that the Pentagon was supplying the White House “with viable military options” to deal with North Korea — an issue that has nettled some White House officials, who believe that the Pentagon has dragged its feet in providing options for striking the North.
During his visit to Tokyo, Mr. Pence inspected a Japanese Patriot antimissile battery, which would be used to try to shoot down an incoming North Korean missile. There was little talk of economic issues, even though Mr. Pence has in the past conducted an economic dialogue with Japan’s finance minister, Taro Aso.
Mr. Pence’s tough words about North Korea could widen fissures between the Trump administration and South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has pursued a more conciliatory approach to the North. Analysts said that the North Koreans, if they began to fan the possibility of talks with Mr. Pence again, could try to exploit those gaps.
“When the Olympics are over, and the U.S. wants to resume military exercises, the North Koreans can say, ‘We made this unprecedented offer of a meeting,’” said Michael J. Green, who served as a top Asia adviser to President George W. Bush.
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