PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—One good defection would have saved the day for Mike Pence. Think of the distraction of a lone North Korean, among more than 400 sent to the Winter Olympics, bolting into the arms of a South Korean policeman or sneaking out of their sequestered quarters into the frigid air of one of Korea’s coldest winters.
What better way to underscore the brutality of the regime on the dark side of the DMZ, as emphasized in the State of the Union by U.S. President Donald Trump when he gave a shout-out to a defector from years past who’d lost a hand and a foot scrounging for coal in the starving North?
No way, of course, was any member of the Olympic contingent sent by Pyongyang likely to evade their guardians, by their sides every minute, but the fantasy did occur to some of us watching the American vice president’s clumsy performance during three troubling days of awkward near-misses with two of North Korea’s most intriguing leaders. He needed a break.
Pence just could not compete for publicity and imagery with the ever-politely-smiling Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, or the elder statesman Kim Yong Nam, the North’s 90-year-old ceremonial head of state.
In a drama of missed opportunities, all Pence had to do was turn around and extend a hand to the pair behind him in the “leaders’ box” at the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium here. Stolidly, he averted his gaze from them, staring steadfastly at the display below, rising for the American team members but glued to his seat as the unified Korea team marched by, all of them, from North and South, carrying “one-Korea flags” with the image of Korea in light blue against a white background. Might his symbolic rejection of the visitors from the North be taken as an insult to the team of his southern hosts?
Stories of the Pence cold shoulder only got worse when he left a dinner hosted by President Moon Jae-in after five minutes, apparently fleeing at the sight of those two North Korean VIPs, not glancing at them, but saying he had already agreed to dine with the American team.
Outside the ticket office, where seats were still going for a minimum of $750, crafty hawkers from European countries were selling half-price tickets they claimed were from “friends” unable to use them. Inside a tiny chicken-and-pizza restaurant, Koreans and foreigners were mesmerized in front of the screen, focusing on the parade, unaware of the drama in the VIP box or the byplay in which the North Koreans clearly seemed to have come out ahead.
The mood was exuberant. Occasionally the crowd burst into cheers as fireworks flared over the stadium a few hundred meters away. Two or three of us laughed as we speculated what would happen if just one among more than 200 “cheerleaders,” 140 musicians and performing artists, 22 athletes and 22 “officials,” including Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, were to defy overwhelming odds and try to stay in South Korea.
“It will never happen,” a South Korean official responded with a good-natured sneer when I asked him. “Impossible.” Or so he hoped. A defection, good for Pence and Trump, would be a diplomatic disaster for the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which could not give a defector back, but could not accept one without scuppering what Moon hopes is a major opening for peace.
How difficult would it be, in fact, for one of those North Koreans to steal the show by defecting—or trying to?
Both North and South Korean organizers clearly were taking no chances.
The 140 musicians and performers in North Korea’s famed Samjiyon orchestra and Moranbong girls’ band, when not entertaining those who won free concert tickets in a lottery in which more than 200,000 entered their names, were bunking on a boat near Gangneung, site of all the “ice events,” including hockey, speed skating and figure skating. South Korea had to request a special exemption from UN sanctions for the boat to bring them south. As for the cheerleaders, they were just as tightly confined in a sprawling resort complex built around a car-racing track in nearby mountains.
Across the street from the chicken restaurant, hundreds of policemen held off competing crowds of demonstrators—right-wingers, mainly aged 50 and above, shouted imprecations against the Olympics, against Moon for having invited the North Koreans but mostly against “the evil” North Korean leader. They seemed to be carrying as many American as Korean flags, and two or three of them had signs in English saying, “Bomb North Korea.”
Opposite, around a small traffic circle, a distinctly younger crowd demonstrated beneath unified-Korea flags, denouncing the Americans for interfering in the Olympics, for bringing war to the Korean peninsula, for standing in the way of peace. “Yankee Go Home,” said one large banner. “No U.S. bases,” said another.
Those competing demonstrations were a sideshow in the larger drama. Why should Pence bother with a show of politeness when both sides remained far apart? A South Korean official had a conciliatory response. By placing Pence in the front row at the ceremony, in between Moon and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “We wanted to show the alliance seated together,” said the official.
Certainly, Pence could have “gotten up and left and sat somewhere else,” he said, but “then you would have had the image of North Korea sitting in the box with South Korea and Japan”—not the message that either Moon or Pence wanted to convey.
Pence got across a much more pleasant message before he and his wife took off for Washington from Osan Air Base south of Seoul. Together with Moon, they watched Lim Hyo-jun pick up South Korea’s first gold medal in the men’s 1500-meter short-track speed-skating final. Both Moon and Pence were shown smiling broadly for the cameras with no North Koreans around to grab the publicity—a happy note on which to end a difficult mission.
Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam attended a concert with President Moon in the evening. Then they and the rest of the delegation flew back to the dark side.