United States vice president Mike Pence was scheduled to meet North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong-un's sister, while in South Korea for the Winter Olympics this month but the North Koreans cancelled at the last minute, US officials said.
"North Korea 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," Mr Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said in a statement on Tuesday.
But after Mr Pence condemned North Korean human rights abuses and announced plans for new economic sanctions, "they walked away from a meeting or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down", Mr Ayers said.
Mr Pence was going to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, and the nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, but the North Koreans called off the February 10 meeting two hours before it was dueto start, a US official said, confirming a story reported by The Washington Post.
The encounter would have been the first scheduled between senior officials from the Trump administration and Pyongyang, which are in a stand-off over the North's development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the US.
"The president made a decision that if they wanted to talk, we would deliver our uncompromising message. If they asked for a meeting, we would meet. He also made clear that until they agreed to complete denuclearisation, we weren’t going to change any of our positions or negotiate," Mr Ayers said, echoing comments made by Mr Pence since he left the Olympics and other US officials.
"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," Mr Ayers said.
South Korea's presidential Blue House said it had nothing to say on the matter.
Mr Pence had criticised Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions and announced the "toughest and most aggressive" sanctions against Pyongyang yet, while also moving to strengthen the US alliance with Japan and South Korea.
Kim Jong-un, through his sister, invited South Korean president Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon".
South Korea's foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa told politicians on Wednesday that talks to improve inter-Korean relations had to go in hand with those linked to denuclearisation of the North. Seoul was in close talks and co-operation with Washington regarding engagements with Pyongyang, the minister said.
"Only when denuclearisation moves forward, can inter-Korean relations move forward," said Ms Kang, adding that Washington's role is "very important" in convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Signs of a North-South thaw have prompted speculation that it could lead to direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang after months of tension and exchanges of insults between US president Donald Trump and Mr Kim, fuelling fears of war.
North Korea has refrained from carrying out weapons tests since late November, when it launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile. South Korea's unification ministry declined to say on Wednesday whether North Korea has been engaging in its regular winter military exercises, which usually run from December for a few months.