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(2nd LD) Pence meets defectors to underscore brutality of North Korean regime

2018/02/09 16:22

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(ATTN: UPDATES throughout)

SEOUL/PYEONGTAEK, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday met a group of North Korean defectors in an apparent effort to highlight the brutality of the repressive regime and abject human rights conditions in the reclusive state.

Pence also reaffirmed that the U.S. and South Korea remain aligned in their approach toward the North, saying that there is "no daylight" between the allies and urging Pyongyang to "permanently" abandon its nuclear aspirations.

Leading a delegation for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Pence arrived in South Korea on Thursday. He earlier met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

On his second day here, Pence toured the country's Navy 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, where he met with four North Korean defectors and heard about their harrowing experiences in the North and the hardships they had to endure to pursue freedom, according to foreign ministry pool reports.

"Thank you all for being here. We are very grateful for your presence. We are grateful for your courage," Pence 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.

"The cruel dictatorship of NK is little more than a prison state. As people testified, it is a regime that imprisons, tortures and impoverishes its citizens and I can assure your witness of that truth will be heard across the world. Thank you for your courage and I look forward to discussing further," he said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (C) speaks with a group of North Korean defectors in a meeting in Pyeongtaek on Feb. 9, 2018. (pool photo) (Yonhap) U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (C) speaks with a group of North Korean defectors in a meeting in Pyeongtaek on Feb. 9, 2018. (pool photo) (Yonhap)

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 also joined the meeting with the defectors.

The meeting was held behind closed doors for a little more than 30 minutes.

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

He paid tribute to victims of two rounds of inter-Korean maritime skirmishes in 1999 and 2002 at a memorial at the command.

He 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.

In front of the memorial, he urged Pyongyang to "permanently" abandon its nuclear ambitions.

"The simple truth is ... the time has come for North Korea to permanently abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, to recognize there is no future as a member of the family of nations for a nuclear-empowered North Korea," Pence said, according to White House pool reports.

"There is no daylight between South Korea and the United States. We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. President Moon and I reflected on that last night. And that denuclearization has to be the starting point of any change, not the end point of any change," he said.

Later in the day, the vice president is to join the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in the eastern town of PyeongChang.

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 has sent 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.

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."