Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Asia this Monday on a tour to up the pressure on North Korea, and it will culminate in South Korea in the thick of the Winter Games. At the Olympics, Pence will be joined by Otto Warmbier's father in a show against North Korea's brutal human rights abuses, a Trump administration official told Bloomberg.
The news that Fred Warmbier will attend the opening ceremony comes on the heels of him and his wife, Cindy, attending the State of the Union last week as the special guests of President Trump and the first lady.
At the beginning of January 2016, their son Otto was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing propaganda from the hotel he was staying at while on a tour of the country. After being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, Otto fell into a coma for reasons that remain unclear. He was returned to the United States after 18 months of his sentence in a vegetative state and died a few days after.
Trump said at the SOTU that "we pledge to honor Otto's memory with total American resolve,” and in doing so Trump connected the family's suffering to the greater standoff with the North over its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. Trump added that the Warmbiers are "powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world."
Pence is also expected to be focusing on the message of strength against North Korea throughout his trip, including at the Olympics.
"The vice president is traveling to the Olympic Games in South Korea to reinforce the strong U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula and send a clear message of American resolve to the North Korean regime,” Pence’s deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, told The Hill in January. Warmbier's presence at the opening ceremony can help make that argument.
This is a PR win for the Trump administration on many levels. The family criticized former President Obama's lack of action on the matter and praised Trump for getting their son back. "I think the results speak for themselves," Warmbier said in June 2017, just days before Otto passed away.
Warmbier said he "felt good" about the president honoring Otto at the State of the Union, though it was "very emotional." The family has not yet released a statement about the Olympics trip.
At the Winter Games, North and South Korean athletes will march together under one flag during the opening ceremony and even play hockey together wearing jerseys emblazoned with the word "Korea" and a map of the peninsula instead of the two respective national flags. They had their first practice match against Sweden this week.
In addition to the athletic overtures from the North, there seem to be big dealings afoot politically too. Kim Yong-nam, the head of North Korea's parliament, will head to South Korea during the games. He's the highest ranking Northern official to visit the South in years, but it's unclear what the itinerary will include.
Some in South Korea are wary of such a move, worrying that it has more to do with the Olympics than any long-term change in policy. South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said last month that the country should remain cautious about their neighbors. "Despite these overtures to improve relations with the South, North Korea has yet to show any intention to fulfill its international obligations regarding denuclearization," Kang said.
The Trump administration would seem to be among the most wary of any potential warming with the North. In addition to Pence's trip and appearance at the opening ceremony, the White House organized a visit for North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday — something sure to anger the North.