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The seating plan for the Winter Olympics opening ceremony could get horribly awkward

Watching you, North Korea.
  • Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As the roster of people attending the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in South Korea got larger, so did the possibility for some very uncomfortable encounters between North Koreans and Americans.

The event, which takes place in the evening (Feb. 9) in Pyeongchang, will be attended by US vice president Mike Pence—who, amid the rapidly developing thaw in relations between South and North Korea in recent weeks, has continued to reiterate the message for applying more pressure (paywall) on Pyongyang. And just as North and South Korean athletes plan to march under a unified Korean flag together and play on the same women’s ice hockey team, Pence said that the US would ”not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.”

Accompanying Pence as his guest will be Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, the teenager who died while in a coma shortly after returning to the US after being detained in North Korea for 17 months. The Warmbier family attended Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech last week, where the US president warned of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang and also invited a North Korean defector to the address to drum up support for his appeal to help North Koreans fight for freedom.

Yonhap via Reuters
Too close for comfort? US vice president Mike Pence at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, just behind him.

On the North Korean side, the highest-ranking official who will attend the opening ceremony is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, the first member of the ruling Kim family to ever visit South Korea. She is also on a US Treasury sanctions blacklist. The North Korean delegation will be led by the ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, and also include Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son-gwon, head of the state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs.

Both Pence and the North Korean delegation have said that there’s no intention to talk to each other at the Olympics, adding additional frostiness to an event that’s already expected to be unbearably chilly.

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