In this Feb. 9, 2018 file photo, Kim Yo Jong, top right, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sits alongside North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, and behind U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as she watches the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang,
Patrick Semansky, AP

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Vice President Pence was prepared to meet with the sister of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un during the Winter Games, but the North backed out at the last minute, according to a top aide to the vice president.

The vice president sat just a row from Kim Yo Jong and other high-ranking members of the delegation during the opening ceremony Feb. 9, but the two sides did not speak.

North Korean officials expressed interest in meeting with Pence on the sidelines of the Games in South Korea, but then balked at the last minute, according to White House officials.

“North Korea would have strongly preferred the Vice President not use the world stage to call attention to those absolute facts or to display our strong alliance with those committed to the maximum pressure campaign,” said Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, in a statement provided to USA TODAY. “But as we’ve said from day one about the trip: this administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics. Perhaps that’s why they walked away from a meeting or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down.”

News of a potential meeting was first reported by the Washington Post.

In the leadup to the Olympics, the White House stepped up calls for further isolation of the Kim regime because of its nuclear and ballistic missile program. Pence warned the world to be suspicious of the North’s Olympic charm offensive.

But Kim’s late decision to send 22 athletes to the Games and have them march under a unified flag with the South Koreans is already paying dividends, despite the Trump administration’s barrage of criticism.

President Moon Jae-in office lavished attention upon the hermetic leader’s sister and other North Korea officials through their stay in the South over the first few days of the Games. 

Moon later described the visit by the North as a success and expressed optimism it would lead to better relations between the two Koreas and eventually talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

But Ayers said the North “dangled a meeting in hopes of the Vice President softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics."

The White House said President Trump decided ahead of Pence’s arrival that they would meet with North Korean officials if asked. But they also were steadfast that they were unwilling to negotiate on sanctions until Kim agreed on complete denuclearization.

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In the days leading up to the Games, Pence worked feverishly on a counter message to the North.

Just hours before the opening ceremony, Pence met with defectors and toured a South Korean naval memorial.

Vice President Pence (C), alongside his wife Karen Pence (C-L) and General Vincent Brooks (R, front), commander of United States Forces Korea, tour an exhibition hall at the Navy's 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.
YONHAP / POOL, EPA-EFE

Pence brought with him Fred Warmbier, an Ohio-man whose son Otto died in June 2017 days after he was released from a North Korean prison, to tour the Cheonan Memorial and meet with the defectors.

The younger Warmbier was arrested by North Korea in 2016 while visiting the country for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster. Warmbier was freed shortly after North Korean officials announced he was suffering medical problems and fallen into a coma. He died days after being returned to the U.S.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the North's decision to scuttle the talks was a failure by the regime to seize an opportunity.

 "The maximum pressure campaign deepening North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation will continue until North Korea agrees to credible talks on a way forward to a denuclearized Korean peninsula," Nauert said.

Jackson reported from Washington. Madhani from Pyeongchang.