U.S. officials say Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet with officials from North Korea earlier this month, but North Korea canceled the meeting at the last minute.
The meeting was to have taken place on February 10, during Pence's visit to South Korea for the opening ceremonies of Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, which were staged the day before.
The vice president was going to hold talks with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, the regime's nominal head of state, both of whom led the North's delegation to the opening ceremonies. According to The Washington Post, the meeting was to have taken place in Seoul at the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea's president.
"The Vice President was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a written statement. "At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting. We regret their failure to seize this opportunity."
The administration initially downplayed any chance of a meeting between Pence and the North Koreans ahead of his trip. But the Post says, based on information from a senior White House official, that the meeting came together after the CIA got word the North Koreans wanted to meet with the vice president during his trip to the Korean peninsula.
North Korea sent a small contingent of athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics after South Korean President Moon Jae-in accepted Kim Jong Un's surprise offer during a New Year's Day speech to participate in the Games.
But Pence refused to acknowledge the North Korean delegation as the two sides shared the VIP box during the opening ceremonies, and did not stand and applaud when the unified Korean delegation entered the stadium. The vice president also invited the father of the late U.S. college student Otto Warmbier as his guest during the ceremonies. Warmbier spent 17 months in detention in North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster, before he was sent home last year in a coma with extensive brain damage and later died.
Pence also refused to acknowledge the North Koreans during a VIP reception before the ceremonies, and held an open meeting with a group of North Korean defectors earlier that day. The vice president had also announced the administration was planning to impose a new round of economic sanctions against the regime ahead of his trip.
The vice president's actions angered Pyongyang. KCNA, North Korea’s official state media, called Pence’s refusal to applaud the joint Korean team at the Olympics an "ugly sight" and warned the U.S. leader to "stop behaving imprudently" in opposition to improving inter-Korean ties.
Nick Ayers, Pence's chief of staff, issued a statement Tuesday saying the North had "dangled a meeting" before Pence's visit in hopes that he would soften the Trump administration's campaign of "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang to force it to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
"But as we’ve said from Day One about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics," Ayers said.
Neither Seoul nor Pyongyang have commented on the canceled meeting.