US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Tokyo Tuesday night on a swing through Asia intended to intensify pressure on North Korea and deny Pyongyang a propaganda victory over its recent decision to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Pence examined Japanese missile defense systems Wednesday before a scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as part of a trip meant to show "solidarity" among US allies in Asia.
He will also meet American troops who would be on the front lines of defending America if a crisis with North Korea erupted.
On Thursday Pence will travel to Seoul to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before attending the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Friday night.
The Vice President used a refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to set the scene for a trip he said was intended to show American "resolve" in rallying the international community against the North Korean regime.
"We're traveling to the Olympics 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," Pence told reporters after a briefing with top US military commanders on missile defense.
But the F-22 fighter jet behind him projected an equally powerful dose of symbolism -- one of American military might ready to combat a North Korean nuclear threat that has dominated the Trump administration's first year in office.
Even the US delegation attending the Games is meant to reinforce the message. Pence, along with his wife, Karen, will lead an American delegation that includes two top military commanders.
He is also bringing Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died soon after being released from North Korean captivity last year, as his special guest to the Olympics opening ceremony. Warmbier and his wife were among President Trump's guests at the State of the Union last month.
Speculation of meeting
The Games will place US officials in close proximity to their North Korea counterparts, leading to speculation of a possible meeting between Pence and members of the North Korean delegation in Pyeongchang.
Pence's aides would not confirm a meeting would take place, but pointedly did not deny some kind of interaction was being considered.
The Vice President himself left the door open when asked about comments made earlier by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which fueled speculation that a meeting was in the works.
"With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we'll see what happens," he said. And when pressed, he doubled down.
"Let me say President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven't requested any meeting. But we'll see what happens," he said.
Senior administration officials told CNN the South Korean government is pushing for Pence to hold some sort of meeting with the North Koreans and is quietly acting as an intermediary in trying to make it happen.
"There is no shift in policy," a senior administration official told reporters later. "He's not going to South Korea to negotiate. He is going to stand with our allies."
But Pence used the exact same language used earlier in the day by Tillerson, who has been pushing for dialogue with the North Koreans and has been in close contact with Pence in the days leading up to his trip.
"With respect to the Vice President's trip to the Olympics and whether there would be an opportunity for any kind of a meeting with North Korea, I think we'll just see," Tillerson told reporters. "We'll have to see what happens."
On Wednesday Tillerson explained further, "It's well known there's a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. North Korea is participating in the Olympics as well, so we don't know what might present itself. "
US wary of 'charm offensive'
Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, will lead the North Korean delegation. Kim is the ceremonial head of state -- though all power rests with Kim Jong Un -- and the most senior North Korean official to ever visit the South, according to the Blue House.
If a meeting took place, it would mark the highest-level interaction between the US and North Korea in decades. But it would not be the first time Trump administration officials have sat face-to-face with North Korean diplomats.
Tillerson attended a UN Security Council meeting in December, where he addressed the North Korean ambassador. North Koreans "alone are responsible for these tensions, they alone must take responsibility for these tensions, and they alone can solve these tensions," Tillerson told North Korea's ambassador Ja Song Nam.
Pence said his message about North Korea would be the same, "whatever the setting, whoever is present.
"And that is that North Korea must once and for all abandon its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile ambitions." Only then, he stressed, could North Korea take its place among the family of nations.
"North Korea can have a better future than the militaristic path and the path of provocation and confrontation that it's on," he said. "Better for its own people, better for the region, and better for peace."
While publicly supportive of the North-South talks over the Olympics issue and the subsequent cooperation, the US is wary of allowing North Korea's government to gain economic concessions from the south through its so-called "charm offensive."
North and South Korea agreed to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympics. Both countries' athletes will march under a unified flag during the opening ceremony on Friday, athletes from the two countries will train together before the Olympics begin, and a joint North and South Korean women's ice hockey team will compete during the games.
South Korean President Moon is hoping to translate the Olympic cooperation into deeper engagement with Pyongyang. But Pence is trying to keep the focus on North Korea's threatening behavior and continue to pressure the regime with sanctions.
The North Korean regime has planned a major military parade the day before the games, which Pence noted sends a "very different message than the message of cooperation and friendship that they're projecting to much of the world."
"We'll be telling the truth about North Korea at every stop," Pence said. "We'll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that's existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community."
With a possible meeting hanging in the air, Pence, for a third time, held out the prospect of better relations.
"If they will choose a different path, there's a better future for the people of North Korea and the people of the Korean Peninsula with a nuclear-free future," he said.