Mike Pence, the US vice president, will arrive in South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games accompanied by Fred Warmbier, the father of the American student who died in June after being released from a North Korean prison.
Mr Warmbier is travelling as a guest of the vice president, and his presence is being seen as a signal to Pyongyang that Washington has no intention of easing the pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un over its human rights record.
Speaking in Pittsburgh on Friday, Mr Pence also made it clear that US retains its policy of applying the maximum international pressure in order to force North Korea to halt its development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Mr Pence told reporters that he would use his trip to South Korea to make it clear that “all options are on the table” to deal with the threat posed by North Korea.
“We will continue to bring all economic and diplomatic pressure to bear until North Korea permanently abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes once and for all,” he said.
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Mr Pence has also described North Korea’s behaviour in recent weeks as a “charade” designed to steal the limelight away South Korea’s hosting of the games.
A key part of that will be reminding the world that North Korea is “the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet”, an aide to Mr Pence told The Korea Times.
Otto Warmbier’s family say their 22-year-old son was blind, deaf and “howling” after being held for 16 months in North Korea. He had travelled to Pyongyang as a tourist in January 2016 but been arrested after trying to steal a propaganda poster from the hotel where he was staying.
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Sentenced to 15 years in prison, North Korea claims Mr Warmbier was taken ill after suffering botulism poisoning and a violent reaction to medicine. The North has denied mistreating Mr Warmbier and said it released him early as a humanitarian gesture.
Fred Warmbier has accused North Korea of torturing his son.
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The hard-line position that the US is taking will come as a disappointment to Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, who has been attempting to engineer a meeting between Mr Pence and Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of North Korea and the leader of the nation’s delegation, in order to break the ice between the two apparently implacable enemies.
On Monday, Mr Moon said that the upcoming Games will mark the start of the establishment of peace in the region and that the mere presence of North Korean athletes in the South sends a clear message that sport can help countries overcome their political and ideological differences.
“It is possible that Mr Pence and Mr Kim might meet each other at one of the receptions for dignitaries attending the Games, but I think it is highly unlikely to expect them to have a deeper conversation”, said Ahn Yin-hay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.
“We know that Mr Moon is very keen for them to meet, but I imagine it is also possible that they will go out of their way to avoid each other at such an event”, she told The Telegraph.
Mr Pence and President Donald Trump, “have made their position quite clear on the North’s human rights record, as well as on the regime’s nuclear weapons and missiles and I think they will take this opportunity to show that to the North”, she added.