North Korea to be a key talking point as US vice president Mike Pence visits Asia

US vice president Mike Pence's six-day tour through Asia, anchored by a stop at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, is set to focus less on sports than the host country's neighbour to the North.

Mr Pence departed on Monday for Alaska, Japan, and South Korea, aiming to ensure North Korea doesn't "hijack" the games as it participates on a joint team with the South, in the view of the White House.

He will hold symbolic events of his own to highlight the North's human rights abuses and nuclear ambitions, according to White House officials.

Mr Pence tweeted on Friday: "I'll travel to Japan & S Korea to attend the Olympics & cheer on our athletes. But I'll also be there to deliver a message: the era of strategic patience is OVER. As N. Korea continues to test ballistic missiles & threaten the U.S, we'll make it clear all options are on the table."

In Alaska, Mr Pence toured missile defence facilities that monitor and could respond to a launch by the North.

In Japan, he will meet with Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and US service members, while in Korea, Mr Pence will visit a memorial to the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to the North, and hold meetings with president Moon Jae-in.

"Missile defence is essential to our national defence," Mr Pence said before a briefing with US Northern Command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. He touted the coming deployment of an additional 20 ground-based interceptors that would respond to an enemy launch.

Leading the US delegation to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Mr Pence will bring to the games Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in 2017 shortly after he was released from North Korean detention.

"He & his wife remind the world of the atrocities happening in N Korea," Pence tweeted on Monday before departing from Washington.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, did not rule out the possibility of a US-North Korea meeting at the Olympics. The games have provided a diplomatic opening between the rival Koreas, although little let-up in the acrimony between Washington and Pyongyang.

"I think we'll just see. We'll have to see what happens," Mr Tillerson told a news conference in Peru. North Korea is sending its nominal head of state, Kim Jong Nam- the highest-level visitor to the south from the North in recent memory.

The trip comes after President Donald Trump hosted a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, including Ji Seong-ho, whom the president referenced in his State of the Union address last week.

The White House cast the meeting as part of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign to counter the North Korean nuclear program.

The plan centres around rallying the international community to further isolate North Korea both diplomatically and economically.

Mike Pence

- PA

KEYWORDS: Mike Pence, Asia

 

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