Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday sought to tamp down South Korea's conciliatory stance toward North Korea on the eve of the Olympic Games but papered over differences between the two allies on their approach toward Pyongyang.
Meeting with President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House, Pence stressed steadfast support in addressing the North Korean threat.
"Our resolve to stand with you is unshakable," Pence said. "The United States of America will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in our effort to bring maximum pressure to bear on North Korea until that time comes when they finally and permanently and irreversibly abandon their nuclear missile ambition."
Pence congratulated Moon on hosting the games, but he refrained from criticizing his government's efforts to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.
Moon pointed to the North Korean delegation attending the games, calling them "Olympic Games of peace," which he hoped would become a "venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Both countries' athletes will march under a unified flag during the opening ceremony on Friday, athletes from the two countries will train together before the Olympics begin and a joint North and South Korean women's ice hockey team will compete during the games.
Just before Pence's arrival, Moon's office announced he would meet with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Pyeongchang. On Wednesday, the North announced that Kim would attend the games, becoming the first member of the Kim family to cross into South Korea. She will be joining the country's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
The US has been wary of South Korea's Olympics diplomacy. Pence has used his trip to Asia to keep the focus on North Korea's nuclear and missile threat and human right's abuses and deny Pyongyang a propaganda victory over its recent decision to participate in games.
But Pence avoided highlighting any daylight between the two allies, telling reporters earlier in the day the relationship between the United States and South Korea is "strong."
An official traveling with Pence acknowledged Washington and Seoul may have different tactics in dealing with North Korea, but that Moon and Abe reaffirmed during their meeting that the two allies share the same goal of North Korean denuclearization.
Pence leaves door open for meeting
Amid speculation that Pence would meet with members of the North Korean delegation, a North Korean official said Thursday the government had no intention for such a meeting.
But Pence has left the door open for an interaction. Before departing for Asia, he fueled speculation by not ruling out a meeting with the North Koreans on the sidelines in Pyeongchang. But, he said, "we'll see what happens."
"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 Thursday.
On Friday, Pence will meet with North Korean defectors in Seoul on the sidelines of a visit to pay respects at the Cheonan Memorial which honors South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack by North Korea. He is also bringing Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died soon after being released from North Korean captivity last year, as his personal guest to the Olympics opening ceremony. Warmbier and his wife were among President Donald Trump's guests at the State of the Union last month.
Earlier in the day, he capped a two-day visit to Tokyo which highlighted the strength of the US-Japan military alliance. The day before, Pence met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is expected to attend the games in Pyeongchang. A meeting between Pence, Moon and Abe at the games is expected to show solidarity among the US, Japan and South Korea in addressing the North Korean threat.
At Yokota Airbase, the headquarters of US Forces Japan, he received a briefing by US military commanders. He then took a brief tour of the Joint Operations Center - which provides an early warning of ballistic missile activity and handles natural disasters and humanitarian crises. He also toured Japan Air Defense Command.
Speaking to roughly 1,000 troops, he noted the massive US presence in the region, including two aircraft carriers and more than 50 American warships and nuclear submarines "which chart their silent path beneath the waves -- positioned to respond with hidden but overwhelming force."
In a pointed warning to North Korea, Pence said, "we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with a response that is rapid, overwhelming, and effective."
"Those who dare to threaten us would do well not to underestimate the capabilities of the armed forces of the United States," Pence said. "Our military power is unparalleled -- our strength-of-arms is unsurpassed -- and our forces are ready, and our nation resolved."