By Jeff Mason
ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to use his attendance at the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month to try to counter what he sees as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s effort to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign, a White House official said on Tuesday.
Pence will be present at the games not just for ceremonial purposes but to try to offset the “charade” he expects the North Koreans to put on when they send a team and also march in the opening ceremony with their South Korean counterparts, according to the official traveling with the vice president and speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He has grave concerns that Kim will hijack the messaging around the Olympics,” the official told reporters aboard Pence’s plane as he returned to the United States from a trip to the Middle East. “The North Koreans have been master manipulators in the past. It’s a murderous state.”
Pence will conduct media interviews during his visit to South Korea, the official said.
“He’s going to root on our Olympians, and he’s excited about that. He’s going to ensure that from a messaging standpoint that it isn’t turned into two weeks of propaganda," the official said.
The South Korean government earlier on Tuesday rejected criticism that the games had been hijacked by North Korea, saying the event will help defuse tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program.
Following recent North-South talks that led to an agreement for North Korea to send a delegation to the Olympics, some opposition politicians and conservatives have criticized Pyongyang’s participation in the games in the South Korean alpine resort town of Pyeongchang.
U.S. President Donald Trump and top advisers have publicly welcomed the recent talks between the Koreas, but U.S. officials have said privately that Pyongyang might be trying to drive a wedge between allies Washington and Seoul.
Tensions between North Korea and the United States have run high over Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.
(Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)