Pence’s office told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the US vice president was to meet with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, on February 10, however, the North Korean officials pulled out at the last minute.
The cancellation allegedly took place less than two hours after Pence spoke in favor of “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions against Pyongyang and denounced the North Korean leadership during his Asia tour.
“North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics,” Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, told The Post.
“North Korea would have strongly preferred the vice president not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum pressure campaign,” he added. “As we’ve said from day one about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
Reacting to the report, the US State Department said that while Pence was willing to meet with the North Korean side, he would have used the opportunity to "drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs."
"We regret [the North Koreans'] failure to seize this opportunity," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Pence sat a few feet away from the North Korean leader’s sister and Kim Yong-nam during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, but they had no interaction at any point.
Pence had earlier suggested that he would be open to a meeting with North Korean representatives during the event’s opening ceremony, saying “We’ll see what happens."
Tensions are running high between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.
The administration of US President Donald Trump claims it prefers a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but it also says that all options are on the table, including military ones.
The UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in December following an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, seeking to further limit its access to refined petroleum products and crude oil.
North Korea has been under a raft of crippling UN sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear tests as well as multiple rocket and missile launches. Pyongyang firmly defends its weapons programs as a deterrent against potential aggression by the US and its regional allies, including South Korea. The North says the regular joint war games by the US, South Korea, and Japan, are rehearsals for war, and has repeatedly urged Seoul and Tokyo to disengage from such drills.