The Olympics have long been billed as a space where politics are put aside and the spirit of competition reigns regardless of what is happening elsewhere in the world.
Reality, of course, has always been much different as the modern Olympics navigated both the literal and figurative wars of the 20th century before plunging headlong into the uncertainty of the 21st.
The current Olympiad presents plenty of political intrigue with the events taking place just miles from the longest militarized border on the planet. And while North and South Korea might be playing nice with unified teams and a shared relay leg in the Opening Ceremony, the presence of United States Vice President Mike Pence in PyeongChang ensured the current conflict between Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and Donald Trump’s United States was front and center as the games began.
How you view Pence’s actions during the opening days of these Winter Games most likely depends on your political affiliation. But it also might depend on whether you believe the Olympics can ever truly operate in a political vacuum
Pence does not appear to be one of those who believe they can.
“There’s no question the message the administration is trying to send here,” NBC’s Katie Couric said after discussing Pence’s political maneuvering during the Opening Ceremony.
To be fair, North and South Korea’s surprising decision to put 72 years of division aside for 17 days has put Pence in a couple of awkward positions so far. Prior to Friday’s Opening Ceremony, the vice president attended a reception thrown by South Korean president Moon Jae-In and did not interact with either of North Korea’s representatives, who were also invited. Initial reports indicated Pence snubbed the North Korean delegation, but later U.S. officials pushed back on that narrative, stating Pence simply wasn’t in an area to greet Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state.
Pence and his wife were later seated in Moon’s box for the Opening Ceremony just in front of Kim Yo Jong, the mysterious sister of Kim Jong Un. The seating arrangement was out of Pence’s control, but his actions during the event were not. Pence did not join the rest of the box in standing to applaud the unified Korean contingent. A White House official later told the Associated Press that Pence only stood to applaud the United States athletes.
Mingling problems aside, it’s been evident that Pence headed to Asia with a clear plan. He has pledged to make sure that no one loses sight of the real North Korea, a regime that NBC’s Katie Couric described as “universally considered one of the most barbaric and brutal regimes in the world” as the network’s coverage opened on Friday night.
Pence could have chosen to sit with the U.S. delegation, avoiding sharing a box with the North Korean delegation, but a U.S. official explained that it was important for optics to appear in the same box as Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“We wanted to show the alliance seated together,” the official said according to CNN. “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.”
One of the members of Pence’s Olympic delegation is Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto was imprisoned in North Korea for a year and a half before being sent back to the United States in a coma and with severe brain damage. Otto Warmbier died six days later at age 22.