Daniel DePetris faults Mike Pence for missing an opportunity to engage with North Korean officials at the Olympics:
But Pence had a golden chance nonetheless to establish some degree of contact with the North Korean regime to deliver a message to the fat man in Pyongyang. He had an opening to clarify to Kim what the United States wants, what it expects, and what would occur if he was stupid enough to attack the U.S. or its allies in Northeast Asia.
Unfortunately, Pence didn’t take that opportunity. President Trump may applaud him for his defiance when he lands back in Washington, but the praise will have come at the cost of bold, low-cost exploratory diplomacy.
DePetris is right that Pence missed an opportunity here, but that’s just one part of the administration’s failure. The much bigger problem with the vice president’s posturing is that it put the U.S. in the absurd position of being more opposed to engagement between the two Koreas than North Korea, and the U.S. should not allow itself to end up in that position. Contradicting a high-profile allied initiative while Pence was on a visit to their country isn’t just bad form. It is diplomatic ineptitude. Perhaps Moon’s efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang will lead to nothing, or perhaps they will create an opening for negotiations, but the U.S. shouldn’t be prejudging and rejecting the effort before giving it a chance to work. It is telling that Pence went to the Olympics specifically to counter North Korean propaganda efforts, but through his statements and actions he haplessly aided those efforts by being the inflexible hard-liner we already knew him to be.
Pence is part of an administration that has no interest in diplomacy or the compromises that it requires, and he shares Trump’s disdain for engagement. He comes from a party and an ideological background that view negotiating with the likes of North Korea as appeasement pure and simple, and so he has learned to view any attempt at thawing relations with these regimes as worse than useless. Pence and his allies are wrong about all of this, but this is why he was never serious about talking to or meeting with North Korean officials this week or at any other time. All of this is a reminder that Pence’s entire Asia trip was misguided from the start, and the U.S. relationship with South Korea is arguably in worse shape now than it was before Pence’s visit.