PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—U.S. Vice President
can’t attend a sporting event these days without attracting a controversy.
Four months after causing a ruckus by leaving a National Football League game after some players protested during the national anthem, Pence drew criticism from some Koreans after he remained seated as the unified Korean team entered the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night.
Pence snapped back on Saturday, saying he was proud to have stood only for the Americans.
During the Opening Ceremony, Pence sat while top officials from North and South Korea—and most of the stadium—rose from their seats to cheer the arrival of the joint team, which was formed last month through a last-minute intervention from the International Olympic Committee.
Pence’s move earned a rebuke from North Korea, who accused him of abusing the Olympics “for a political purpose,” and even from some in the South who criticized his decision to remain seated, as well as his failure to meet with North Korean leaders at a pre-Opening Ceremony VIP reception.
The vice president “does not applaud [North] Korea or exchange pleasantries [with] the most oppressive regime on earth,” Pence’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, wrote in a tweet Saturday.
Instead, Agen said, Pence “stands and cheers for U.S. athletes” and “hangs out with U.S. athletes instead of dining with [the] Kim regime.”
During the Opening Ceremony, Pence and his wife Karen sat just one row in front of
Kim Yo Jong,
the sister of North Korea’s leader, and
Kim Yong Nam,
the Pyongyang regime’s ceremonial head. The two sides didn’t interact throughout the two-hour-long ceremony.
There is no protocol requiring guests to stand for the host country’s arrival, according to a person familiar with the matter. It was not immediately clear what the heads of U.S. official delegations had done to mark the arrival of the host country’s team.
Pence also missed meeting the North Korean dignitaries at the VIP reception, held just before the Opening Ceremony. Pence arrived late, and then left after five minutes, saying that he was due at a dinner with U.S. athletes.
White House officials denied that he had been deliberately late to the reception to avoid the meeting, or that he was caught off guard by the close proximity to those officials during the opening ceremony.
White House officials added that they knew exactly who was going to be in the seating area with South Korean President
at the Opening Ceremony, and that Pence could have opted to sit with the U.S. delegation. But doing so, they added, would have left the North Koreans alone with the South Koreans and Japanese Prime Minister
“We wanted to show the alliance seated together. 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,” a White House official said.
In Pyongyang, the backlash against Pence’s behavior in Pyeonchang was fierce. One commentary described Pence as having “let out a torrent of abuse pointing an accusing finger at the others’ event, instead of just sitting to watch it as a guest.”
“His behavior is nothing but an ugly sight being reminded of crazy Trump,” read the commentary, attributed to Kim Chol Myong published by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
“We never sent the high-level delegation to South Korea in order to create the possibility of a dialogue with Americans by meeting them who are not worth human beings.”
—Sara Germano contributed to this article.
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