PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (NS) – At an Olympic dinner reception designed to break the ice between two nations still technically at war, the dessert said it all.
Dark chocolate tempered in the shape of barbed wire lay over a map of the Korean peninsula rendered in thin blue chocolate, a representation of the heavily militarised border that separates Games host South Korea and its old enemy in the North.
The guests, including leaders of North and South, were invited to pour melted white chocolate on top – and the barbed wire would dissolve.
The dessert, called “A Plate of Hope”, was what South Korean President Moon Jae-in planned to serve his dozen VIP guests, which were to include U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics’ pre-opening party on Friday.
But Pence had other ideas.
He left the reception after just a few minutes, skipping the hopeful dessert and a potentially awkward encounter with North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.
“South Korea has some difficult homework to solve regarding some countries,” Moon told the gathering of some 200 VIPs at the reception before Pence arrived.
“There are some who would not want to be in the same room together if it wasn’t for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But what is more important than anything is that we are together.”
Pence arrived at the reception late and had planned to leave directly after a photo session but Moon asked him to “come and say hello to friends”, Moon’s presidential spokesman said.
Pence came to the table and shook hands with all of the VIPs on the head table except Kim Yong Nam, and left the reception five minutes later. Unlike Pence, fellow attendee Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did shake hands with Kim Yong Nam, the South’s presidential Blue House said.
Pence’s absence undid some careful organising, according to a seating diagram provided by a South Korean government source and protocol experts.
The early plan showed Pence, with his wife to the left and Moon to his right, seated across the round table from Kim, who was nestled between U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and International Olympics Committee President Thomas Bach’s wife.
Abe, also a staunch critic of the North Korean regime, was to sit opposite Moon, between Guterres and Han Zheng, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee. Other guests at the top table included Moon’s wife, and the German president and his wife.
“The seating arrangement shows traces of the organisers’ agony,” said a former South Korean chief of protocol who reviewed the early draft of the seating arrangement.
In a such a setting, the host nation would usually arrange seating by the alphabetical order of country names or the length of terms the guests had served, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The work-around showed the host had adopted the principle that “no one should be uncomfortable with the person sitting next to them”, with those from international organisations playing a buffer role, the official said.
As it was, the two spaces set aside for Pence and his wife were left empty and seats for others were shuffled to more closely match normal protocols.
A source in the Moon administration said Pence’s absence at the reception was a “mere bump” in an otherwise successful diplomatic event.
And the dessert? Pictures posted to social media by a South Korean lawmaker appeared to show that in at least one occasion, the chocolate barbed wire failed to dissolve.
Reporting by Soyoung Kim in PYEONGCHANG and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin in PYEONGCHANG and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lincoln Feast and