INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea’s ceremonial leader and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence may have their first face-to-face encounter on Friday at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, with Washington gearing up for more sanctions against the North.
Any contact between the two is expected to be tense after Pence said South Korean President Moon Jae-in supported additional sanctions the United States was planning to impose on Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear programs.
Pence said Moon acknowledged the effectiveness of sanctions in bringing North Korea to inter-Korean talks.
“President Moon reaffirmed to me his strong support of our extreme pressure campaign to continue to bring additional sanctions on North Korea,” Pence told reporters.
He spoke after paying tribute at a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in the sinking of a warship in 2010 that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.
Pence arrived in South Korea on Thursday and had talks and dinner with Moon, both reiterating their commitment and cooperation to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, landed in South Korea on Friday along with leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, aboard her brother’s private jet shortly before 2 p.m. (0400 GMT).
The white airplane had Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name, inscribed in black Korean letters on its side, followed by the North Korean flag.
Police formed barricades inside the airport as the delegation made their way to the bullet train to take them to the mountain resort of Pyeongchang.
Kim Yo Jong and her delegation were greeted by government officials, including Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon, before boarding the train.
There were no other civilian passengers on the train, a rail official told Reuters, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Smiling and seemingly unfazed by cameras flashing during the airport meeting, Kim Yo Jong wore a black coat, matching ankle boots and carried a black purse. Dozens of South Koreans at the airport tried to snap photos of her on their mobile phones.
She is the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the South, while Kim Yong Nam is the most senior North Korean official to make a cross-border trip.
The pair will have lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday, Moon’s office said.
The visit to the memorial by Pence, who has described the North as the “most tyrannical and oppressive regime”, is in line with Washington’s campaign to put “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
Pence has kept open the possibility for some contact with the North Koreans in South Korea, while reiterating Washington’s insistence that denuclearization is a necessary condition for peace on the Korean peninsula.
Pence, Kim Yo Jong and other world leaders will attend the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, later on Friday.
Moon will also hold a welcoming reception for his top guests before the Games opening, a presidential official said, where Pence and Kim Yong Nam could sit at the same table with Moon.
South Korea is pinning its hopes on the Olympics as a venue to demonstrate its efforts to defuse tensions and foster inter-Korean rapprochement.
The Games will see athletes from the two Koreas march together under one peninsula flag for the first time in more than a decade.
Nearly 500 North Koreans are participating in the Olympics, which run through to Feb. 25, including a cheering squad, art troupe and taekwondo demonstration team, the South’s Unification Ministry said.
However, the inter-Korean Olympics detente has raised concerns in Washington and Tokyo that Seoul may undermine the U.S.-led campaign of global pressure to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.
Moon is also scheduled to hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during which they are expected to discuss the North Korea standoff and the sensitive issue of “comfort women”, a euphemism for girls and women forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.
Abe said before leaving for the Olympics he wanted to convey to the world that cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea on the North Korean threat “will not waver”.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL, Heekyong Yang in INCHEON; and Linda Sieg and Kaori Kaneko in TOKYO; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait