WASHINGTON — The father of Otto Warmbier — the college student who died shortly after North Korea released him from prison — will join Vice President Mike Pence at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a U.S. official announced Monday.
Fred Warmbier’s presence at Pence’s side during the pageantry that kicks off the competition Feb. 9 will be a central part of the vice president’s efforts to avoid having the brutal regime in Pyongyang “hijack” the Games for a propaganda victory, the administration says.
U.S. officials say that the White House is worried that a North Korea “charm offensive” during the Games might reduce the sense of urgency about dictator Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Athletes from North and South Korea will march together at the Opening Ceremony under a single flag. The Stalinist regime has invited Western news outlets to report from carefully stage-managed areas designed to portray the impoverished country in the best light while sending an orchestra to perform in the South. All the while, Kim has refrained from new nuclear or missile tests.
President Trump’s administration has waged a months-long campaign to highlight human rights abuses in North Korea, and generally to portray the brutal regime in Pyongyang as a bad actor even apart from its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
On Friday, Trump welcomed six North Korean defectors to the Oval Office. Three days earlier, he invited one of them, Ji Seong-ho, to his first State of the Union address. In November, Trump returned North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That same month, an op-ed by senior State Department official Brian Hook in the New York Times compared Kim’s elite entourage to intestinal parasites. In December, Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert publicly blamed North Korea for the WannaCry “ransomware” attack that disabled computers around the world in May — an unusual step, given how difficult it can be to definitively determine the authorship of online attacks.
“North Korea has done everything wrong as an actor on the global stage that a country can do,” Bossert told reporters in the White House briefing room. “President Trump has used just about every lever you can use, short of starving the people of North Korea to death, to change their behavior. And so we don’t have a lot of room left here to apply pressure to change their behavior.”
A senior administration official said Fred Warmbier could participate in other portions of Pence’s trip to Asia but did not elaborate. The vice president’s itinerary includes a tour of missile defense systems in Alaska and a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, as well as a rally with troops at Yokota Air Base near that capital city. In South Korea, Pence will meet with President Moon Jae-in and North Korean defectors, as well as attend the opening of the Games in the city of PyeongChang.
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