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(LEAD) Pence visits Navy command, meets defectors underscoring brutality of North Korean regime

2018/02/09 14:48

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(ATTN: CHAGNES headline, dateline; ADDS updated info throughout)

SEOUL/PYEONGTAEK, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday visited memorials for South Korean sailors killed by the North's maritime attacks and met with a group of defectors from the repressive regime.

Pence used the second day of his trip to South Korea to highlight the danger, brutality and rights abuses of Pyongyang as he seeks to tackle its Olympic charm offensive seen as aimed at weakening international sanctions against it.

Pence, heading a U.S. delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, met President Moon Jae-in on Thursday.

On Friday, Pence paid tribute to victims of two rounds of inter-Korean maritime skirmishes in 1999 and 2002 in a memorial at the Navy's 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul.

Later, he met four North Korean defectors, including Ji Seong-ho, who was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address last week.

On his Seoul visit, Pence is accompanied by the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who was detained in North Korea and died shortly after being sent home in a coma last year. He joined the meeting with the defectors.

"Thank you all for being here. We are very grateful for your presence. We are grateful for your courage," Pence reportedly told the defectors at the start of the meeting. "I am inspired by your bravery ... Across the line of provocations you fled for freedom. I want to say that the American people stand with you.

"As we speak, a hundred thousand North Koreans are living in modern day gulags ... We want to hear your story."

   The meeting was held behind closed doors for a little more than 30 minutes. Pence was said to have heard testimony from the defectors about their harrowing experiences in the North.

Pence later moved to visit another memorial, where the wreckage of a South Korean warship torpedoed by North Korea is displayed.

In March 2010, the North's attack sunk the Cheonan warship near the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border off the country's west coast, killing 46 sailors on board.

The vice president will move to the country's eastern alpine town of PyeongChang later in the day to join the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, which will be held from Friday through Feb. 25.

His trip to South Korea has raised cautious expectations about possible U.S.-North Korea contact on the sidelines of the sporting event, as the North will send a high-level delegation that includes Kim Yong-nam, the communist state's ceremonial head of state, and Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's sister.

But the State Department said Tuesday the U.S. has no plans to meet with North Korean officials on the margins of the Olympics. The North earlier said it has "never begged for dialogue with the U.S. and will be the same in the future."

   kokobj@yna.co.kr

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