(CNN)Vice President Mike Pence did not deliberately snub North Koreans at an Olympic reception, according to US officials who pushed back on South Korean reports that Pence deliberately came late to a VIP gathering Friday evening and then snubbed officials from Pyongyang.
Pence didn't snub North Koreans deliberately, officials say
Officials traveling with Pence to the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in South Korea were responding to reports that Pence had gone around a main table and greeted everyone except Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's nominal head of state. These officials said that while Pence did not greet Kim Yong Nam, he didn't deliberately skip over him. Instead, they said, Kim simply wasn't seated in the area where Pence was receiving well-wishers.
The officials said it was fair to say both Pence and the North Koreans rebuffed South Korean President Moon Jae-in's efforts to facilitate a meeting between North Korea and the US.
North Korea has sent some of the highest level officials ever to the south for these games, the result of diplomacy by Seoul that led to an agreement between the two countries -- still formally at war -- to participate together in the Winter Games. Athletes from the two countries marched side by side during the opening ceremony and have formed a joint women's hockey team.
But Pence has not let up on the tough rhetoric he's been delivering since arriving in Asia. Speaking to NBC's "Nightly News" on Thursday, the vice president continued to stress that the US would protect itself from North Korean nuclear threats by taking whatever "action is necessary to defend our homeland."
Officials traveling with Pence said it would be fair to characterize his failure to interact with the North Koreans as a mutual decision, with neither side making any public overtures.
Pence was in close proximity to the North Korean party both at the VIP reception and later, watching the opening ceremony from Moon's box, which included Kim Yong Nam and leader Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong.
That said, these officials said that if the North Koreans had approached Pence with pleasantries, he would have responded in kind.
As for sharing Moon's box with the North Koreans, the officials said they knew in advance who was going to be in Moon's box to watch the opening ceremony. They said Pence could have opted to sit with the US delegation and avoided the box that included the North Koreans.
The visual was important, a US official said.
"We wanted to show the alliance seated together," the official said. "We wanted the North Koreans to see the vice president, Abe and Moon sitting directly in front of them for the opening ceremonies, and it would show that that alliance is strong."
"At any moment, he could have gotten up and left and sat somewhere else, and then you would have had the image of North sitting in the box with South Korea and Japan," the official added. "But he stayed there the entire time... and talked to Moon and Abe and their spouses, and the North Koreans sat in the back and didn't talk to anybody, and that image is telling."
Pence had said all week that if he met with the North Koreans, he would deliver a tough message. He also said the ceremonies were not the appropriate venue for serious talks.
Asked about criticism that Pence stood and cheered only for Team USA and stayed seated when the North and South Koreans marched in under a unified flag, the official was unapologetic.
"The vice president cheered for the team he's rooting for. He cheered for the USA," the official said. "That's the team he's going to be cheering for all Olympics. He wants them all to win medals. He's biased for the Americans."