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Mike Pence avoids North Korean official at Olympic reception

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SEOUL, Feb. 9 (UPI) — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence avoided encountering North Korea‘s ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam during a reception dinner ahead of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Friday, underscoring chilly relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

The two neither faced each other nor shook hands. Pence, who arrived at the reception late, left the venue after a five-minute stay, according to pool reports.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in hosted the reception at a hotel in Yongpyeong, just east of the host city of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. It was attended by some 200 people, including more than two dozen global leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Unlike Pence, Abe shook hands with the North’s titular head and chatted briefly with him. The details of their conversation were not released.

Moon’s chief press secretary Yoon Young-chan later explained that the U.S. vice president was originally scheduled to hold separate dinner with U.S. athletes at the PyeongChang Olympic Games, insisting his early departure did not mean a boycott.

Still, it was widely believed to reflect U.S. suspicions toward the recent rapprochement between the two Koreas.

North Korea agreed to take part in the Winter Olympic Games after three rounds of inter-Korean dialogue last month that marked the first of their kind in more than two years.

In a meeting with the South Korean president on Thursday, Pence said the United States will continue to put maximum pressure on the North until the reclusive state comes to the dialogue table to discuss its “permanent” and “irreversible” denuclearization.

Moon, on the other hand, has repeatedly stressed the need to keep the inter-Korean dialogue moving forward, so they may lead to a resumption of international negotiations on ending the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Pence arrived here Thursday while Kim and other North Korean delegates, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un‘s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, arrived earlier in the day.

Kim Yong Nam and the North Korean leader’s sister are scheduled to hold a meeting with Moon on Saturday.

At the Olympic reception, the North Korean official was still joined by several other global leaders, including Abe and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, and his wife, according to Seoul’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

On Thursday, North Korea said its official delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics had no intention of meetings its U.S. counterpart.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. and will be the same in the future,” Cho Yong Sam, a senior official at the North’s foreign ministry, was quoted as saying by the communist state’s official Korean Central News Agency.