Feb. 9 (UPI) — In South Korea for the start of the Winter Olympics Friday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with defectors from North Korea — accompanied by the father of Otto Warmbier, an American who died after his release from captivity there last year.
Pence said he was inspired by the “bravery” of those who fled across the demilitarized zone — and honored to be joined by Fred Warmbier, who he called a “champion” for the North Korean people.
Several defectors shared their stories with the vice president, including Ji Seong-ho, who said reading the Bible helped her decide to flee from North Korea in 1998. It took Ji four attempts to escape successfully.
“As President Trump has said, the cruel dictatorship of North Korea is little more than a prison state,” Pence said. “And as these people and their lives have testified, it is a regime that imprisons, tortures, and impoverishes its citizens. And I can assure you that your witness of that truth today will be heard across the world.”
U.S. college student Otto Warmbier was captured in North Korea in 2016, authorities said for stealing a sign praising leader Kim Jong Un. He died shortly after his release last June. Friday, his father said he was “proud” of the defectors’ strength.
“It’s hard — evil is hard to accept,” Warmbier said during the meeting. “And I’ve experienced evil, and you have too. And I just feel so much love and warmth for you all.”
Pence also spent time at the Cheonan Memorial Friday, to honor a ship sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack in 2010.
The vice president said he “reaffirmed” the United States’ commitment to a denuclearized North Korea during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“South Korea stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States and our allies in continuing to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically,” Pence said.
Pence also noted he wasn’t concerned with keeping the focus on North Korea amid the “charm offensive” on display at the Winter Olympics.
“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies, but it’s also to stand up for the truth, and to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, that North Korea has to accept change,” he said.
Before Pence arrived, Moon’s office announced he will meet with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Moon hosted a reception in at a hotel in Yongpyeong, just east of Pyeongchang. The event was attended by North Korean ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam, who accompanied Yo Jong to the Games.
Pence avoided an encounter Friday with Kim Yong Nam, leaving the hotel after a five-minute stay.
The White House said Pence didn’t avoid Yong Nam, noting instead that the North Korean leader was seated elsewhere.
At Friday’s opening ceremony, Pence was seated just one row in front of a North Korean delegation that included Yo Jong and Yong Nam, and had no interaction with them.