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FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to reporters at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on December 22, 2017. REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool

(reuters_tickers)

By Jeff Mason and Hyonhee Shin

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was en route to Asia on Tuesday on a trip that takes him to the Winter Olympics in South Korea where his itinerary underlines Washington's stance that North Korea is trying to use the Games for crude propaganda.

As his guest for the Games opening ceremony on Friday, Pence is bringing the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months and died in June 2017 from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

Pence will also visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

"The vice president will be there with Mr. Warmbier at the opening ceremony ... to remind the world of the atrocities that happen in North Korea," a White House official said on Monday.

South Korea, a close U.S. ally that hosts about 28,500 American troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, has welcomed a North Korean team to the Games, part of efforts to improve ties after the North conducted its sixth nuclear test last year and a series of missile tests, in defiance on U.N. Security Council resolutions.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he hopes "something good" can come from North Korea's participation, but his advisers see North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's embrace of the Games as a facade of international goodwill and cooperation.

During Pence's visit, Washington wants to keep the focus on the North's disregard for calls to halt its nuclear programme and convince allies to keep pressuring Pyongyang, officials said.

However, there are tensions between U.S. scepticism and the optimism of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who wants to use the Games to improve relations with the North and open the door to eventual talks on its weapons programmes.

Games organisers have picked up on Moon's theme of peace and reconciliation.

"Through the participation of North Korea, the 'Peace Olympics' has been realised and this will lead a foundation to improve inter-Korean relations," Games chief Lee Hee-beom told reporters.

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRE

North Korea's ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, is travelling to the Games this week, the most senior North Korean official to enter the South since the Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. Hundreds of North Korean officials, athletes, cheerleaders and artistic performers are also expected to attend.

A North Korean ferry, taking advantage of a rare sanctions exemption from Seoul, is set to arrive in the South on Tuesday, carrying a 140-strong orchestra which will perform near Pyeongchang, where the Games are being held, and in the capital, Seoul.

Seoul had banned all North Korean ships entering its ports after the North Korean torpedo attack in 2010 - the event that Pence will commemorate during his visit.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday "we'll have to see what happens" when asked whether Pence or other officials would meet North Koreans at the Games.

No such meetings are planned.

"The vice president most certainly is not seeking a meeting with the North Koreans," a White House official said.

North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper described Trump in an editorial on Tuesday as a lunatic who was slandering the nation with talk of North Korean oppression.

"This is the intolerable, politically motivated provocation and tyrannical blackmail ...," it said in a commentary.

Pence's Asian tour will first take him to Japan, arriving there on Tuesday. He will meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visit troops at Yokota Air Base before leaving for Seoul on Thursday, where he will meet with Moon.

(Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mark Bendeich; Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann in PYEONGCHANG; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Reuters