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Pence Starts Asia Trip Amid Signs Of Strain With South Korea

Feb 7, 2018
Originally published on February 7, 2018 8:49 pm

As Vice President Pence began his two-stop Asia trip on Wednesday, he highlighted America's ties with longtime U.S. allies in the region, Japan and South Korea.

"I look forward to reinforcing the important priority that President Trump and the United States places on the relationships with these two nations," Pence said during a refueling stop on his way to Japan.

Both Japan and South Korea are considered cornerstones of U.S. security and economic relationships in Asia. But the relationship with one is going more smoothly than with the other.

The U.S. and Japan both favor hard-line policies toward the North Korean regime in Pyongyang. On Wednesday, Pence announced the U.S. would again ramp up economic sanctions aimed at starving the regime of resources. On this approach, the U.S. and Japan have stayed in lockstep.

"It's all about pressure; it's all about military might. Strong posture, and very negative about dialogue," says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University.

But South Korea, the other longtime U.S. partner, favors dialogue. It has engaged with North Korea frequently this year in an effort to reach peaceful resolution of the nuclear and missile problems on the Korean Peninsula.

"South Koreans are feeling increasingly that U.S. and Japan are being unrealistic in just sort of choosing the hard line vis-à-vis North Korea," Nakano says.

Significant differences are emerging between Washington and Seoul, according to David Straub, a Northeast Asia specialist and 30-year veteran of the State Department. And that will have consequences, he says.

"Under the best of circumstances, it's going to be incredibly hard to get North Korea to get rid of nuclear weapons, short of the use of military force. So we need everybody working together. And currently the U.S. and South Korea are not working together," Straub says.

Signs of strain are particularly evident as South Korea pushes ahead with the 2018 Winter Games — it wants to call them the "Peace Olympics" — which start Friday. Even as the two Koreas make shows of unity, the U.S. vice president is sharpening his rhetoric against the North.

"We'll be there to cheer on our American athletes, but we'll also be there to stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet," Pence said.

Nakano says this kind of tension among U.S. allies accrues to Pyongyang's benefit.

"North Korea has always been good at dividing and conquering and making advances. What North Korea would not want to have is a united front against it," he says.

Pence said in Tokyo that the three allies still stand shoulder to shoulder. But in practice, there's distance. South Korea and Japan are still working on unresolved issues dating back to the beginning of the last century. All the while, the three countries must together confront a North Korea problem that Straub says really hasn't changed.

"The two Koreas have not made any real progress yet," Straub says. "This is simply a matter of allowing the North Koreans to participate in an Olympics in which they've basically not qualified."

He says the real test will come later, after the Olympic Games are over. That's when the U.S. and South Korea are expected to start up joint military exercises again. North Korea calls these war games "provocations."

South Korea concedes that its relationship with the North so far is fragile. So keeping the peace after the Olympics will require careful coordination.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Vice President Pence has started his five-day trip in Asia. The idea is to highlight two longstanding alliances the U.S. has in the region and send a message to North Korea. The alliance with one Asian partner is smoother than the other. His first stop today was Japan, and NPR's Elise Hu has more.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Vice President Mike Pence landed here in Tokyo to begin a tour with two stops - Japan and then South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics. Both countries are considered cornerstones of the U.S. security and economic relationships in Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I look forward to reinforcing the important priority that President Trump and the United States places on the relationship with these two nations.

HU: But because of North Korea, there are signs these relationships seem to be going in different directions. The U.S., led by Donald Trump, and Japan, led by Shinzo Abe, both favor hard-line policies toward Pyongyang. Earlier today, Pence announced the U.S. would again ramp up economic sanctions aimed at starving the North Korean regime of resources. Koichi Nakano of Tokyo's Sophia University says the U.S. and Japan have stayed in lockstep in this approach.

KOICHI NAKANO: It's all about pressure. It's all about military might and strong posture and very negative about dialogue.

HU: South Korea, the other longtime ally, is trying the dialogue route. It's engaged with North Korea frequently in this new year all in an effort to eventually talk toward peaceful resolutions to the nuclear and missile problem here.

NAKANO: South Koreans are increasingly feeling that the U.S. and Japan are being unrealistic in just sort of, you know, choosing the hardline vis-a-vis North Korea.

DAVID STRAUB: There, there are some significant differences.

HU: David Straub is a Northeast Asia specialist and a 30-year veteran of the State Department.

STRAUB: Under the best of circumstances, it's going to be incredibly hard to get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons short of the use of military force. So we need everybody working together. And currently, the United States and South Korea are not entirely working together.

HU: Signs of strain show up as South Korea pushes ahead with what it wants to call the Peace Olympics, which start Friday. At the same time, the U.S. vice president is sharpening rhetoric against the North.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: We'll be there to cheer on our American athletes, but we'll also be there to stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.

HU: Nakano says this kind of relationship tension among U.S. allies helps North Korea.

NAKANO: North Korea has been always good at sort of dividing and conquering and making advances. And so what North Korea would not want to have is a united front against it.

HU: Pence said in Tokyo the three allies still stand shoulder to shoulder. But in practice, there's distance among them. South Korea and Japan are still working on unresolved issues dating back to the beginning of the last century. All the while, the three countries must together confront a North Korea problem that David Straub says really hasn't changed.

STRAUB: The two Koreas have not made any real progress yet. I mean, this is just simply a matter of allowing the North Koreans to participate in an Olympics in which they've basically not qualified.

HU: He says the real test will come later.

STRAUB: What really matters I think is what will happen after the Olympics and the Paralympics here in Korea are over.

HU: That's when the U.S. and South Korea are expected to start up joint military exercises again. North Korea calls these war games provocations. South Korea says its relationship with the North is fragile, so keeping the peace will require careful coordination. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.