US to impose 'toughest ever' sanctions on North Korea, Pence warns

Vice President visits Japan ahead of Olympics

CNN, pool

Mike Pence

(CNN) - Vice President Mike Pence says the United States plans to unveil the "toughest and most aggressive" sanctions yet against North Korea.

Speaking from Tokyo alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Pence didn't detail what the sanctions would be but said they'd aim to halt Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile program "once and for all."

"Together with Japan, and all our allies, we will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization," Pence said.

The United Nations passed successive rounds of biting sanctions against the North Korean regime last year, targeting energy imports, coal exports and foreign labor.

Washington also passed its own unilateral measures against North Korea and foreign firms that it has caught doing business with Pyongyang or the Kim Jong Un regime.

The White House hopes that sanctions will slow the development of the country's missile program, and strangle the economy to the point where North Korea would put its nuclear weapons on the negotiating table.

US to counter North Korean

Pence arrived in Tokyo Tuesday night on his way to South Korea, where he'll lead the US delegation at the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

En route Pence told reporters that the purpose of his trip was to "make sure that North Korea doesn't use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime."

The US delegation includes Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto, the American student who died shortly after being released from North Korean captivity last year.

Earlier this week, a White House official said Pence "will not allow the North Korean regime to highjack messaging of Olympics with propaganda."

North Korean's 'peace offensive'

North Korea is sending a large delegation to the Games that includes athletes, cheerleaders, a member of the country's popular girl band Moranbong and even Kim Jong Un's sister.

North Korea's attendance is the result of the first high-level, inter-Korean diplomatic meetings in more than two years.

North and South Korean athletes will march under the same flag during the Opening Ceremony and will field a joint women's ice hockey team, signs of unity that have some in the South calling these Games the "Peace Olympics."

"North Korea is notorious for waging peace offensives after tensions," said Duyeon Kim, a fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum.

"This latest campaign has several goals: to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, divide South Koreans, weaken the international campaign of sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Pyongyang, and give North Korea an image makeover at a major international event by creating the illusion of a normal and peaceful country."

While US President Donald Trump's administration has praised dialogue between South and North Korea, the White House maintains that its stance toward Pyongyang has not changed.

On Wednesday, Pence echoed comments made by Trump during the US President's address to the South Korean Assembly last November.

"An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor, and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis," Pence said.

Standing by his side, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinforced the message from the US and its allies that action must come before talks.

"We can not expect any meaningful dialogue with North Korea as long as they do not show genuine willingness and concrete action for the de-nuclearization," Abe said.

It has been suggested that US and North Korean officials could meet at the Games in what would be the first high-level interaction between the two countries in decades.

"With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we'll see what happens," Pence said.

But analysts predict the recent diplomatic thaw could freeze over after the Games, when Seoul and Washington resume military exercises.

"The likely scenario is that if joint exercises continue, the North will walk away from diplomacy and do something provocative, resulting in intensified pressure from Washington and a repeat of last year's escalation," said Duyeon Kim.

Both South Korea and the US had previously agreed to postpone the drills for the duration of the Games.

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