It has been belatedly known that an expected behind-closed-doors meeting between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, did not happen because the North called it off at the last minute. The high-level contact was proposed by North Korea, arranged by South Korea, and scheduled to take place at the South Korean presidential office Chong Wa Dae on February 10, a day after the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. However, the North reportedly called off the meeting. The U.S. Department of State confirmed a Washington Post report on the cancelled meeting, saying, “We regret the failure to seize this opportunity.”
The fact that Pyongyang and Washington went so close to holding a meeting shows that the two sides had been seeking a dramatic compromise behind closed doors despite their exchanges of highly intensive threats. Secret diplomacy was under way amid the war of words. Such attempts could continue in the future for North Korea-U.S. talks. However, the situation also raises a question whether it would be possible to hold dialogue with North Korea, which refuses to discuss its denuclearization itself.
The North said the meeting with Pence was possible by the morning of the day but called it off at the last minute, taking issue with Pence’s remarks. Pyongyang probably decided that there was nothing to gain from the meeting as Pence continued to put pressure on the North by touring the wreckage of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which was destroyed by a North Korean attack, and meeting with North Korean refugees. It is also possible that Kim Jong Un canceled the meeting after being briefed on Pence’s behavior of not even offering to shake hands with Kim Yong Nam, the North’s titular leader who led the North Korean delegation to the South.
The North wasted a hard earned opportunity. In diplomacy, it is common to present one’s maximum target and bluff by refusing to take any step back before the first meeting. However, the first meeting could get the real dialogue going. However, the North refused to have that first meeting. It would not be easy to revive a blown chance. The United States is still keeping the door open to an exploration dialogue prior to earnest talks. Kim Jong Un should not lose this opportunity.