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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

For the U.S., Venezuela now presents a bigger crisis than N. Korea

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó shakes hands Monday

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó shakes hands Monday with Vice President Mike Pence in Bogotá, Colombia, in a room filled with humanitarian aid for Venezuela. Credit: AP/Martin Mejia

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence traveling outside the United States at the same time. Pence, surprisingly, has the more urgent mission, which could gain more attention than that of his boss.

Trump downplayed expectations in advance of his arrival Tuesday in Vietnam for his second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Chances of removing all nukes from the rogue regime in exchange for lifting economic pressure appear distant. On Sunday, Trump claimed he was in no rush for Pyongyang to prove it was quitting its arsenal.

"As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy," said the president, who once warned of "fire and fury" if North Korea did not end its military threat.

Recent satellite photos suggest no interruption in North Korea's nuclear program. With the talks cordial but at a stalemate, Trump's trip shouldn't draw the kind of wall-to-wall Olympics-like television coverage as the first summit did last June in Singapore.

North Korea, which has been making and breaking reform promises for decades, pushed for the Trump-Kim talks. The country has mostly shunned staff-level negotiations.

Trouble in Venezuela, the focus of Pence's trip, presents the more immediate crisis.

Over the weekend at least three people were killed and nearly 300 wounded during clashes as aid convoys sought to enter Venezuela to deliver food and medicine.

By Monday, Pence sat beside Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in Bogotá, Colombia, and announced new sanctions on four of that nation's state governors who are aligned with President Nicolás Maduro. "In the days ahead," Pence said, "the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime's corrupt financial networks."

Pence has showed a higher profile on Latin America than has Trump. As the news site Axios notes, Pence made the administration's first tour of Latin American nations in 2017, and he phoned Guaidó in January to say Trump would back him if he declared himself Venezuela's interim president based on Maduro fixing the election. Guaidó did so the next day. This is Pence's fifth trip south of the border as vice president.

Americans do not have a free hand in either of the regions that the No. 1 and No. 2 administration officials visited this week.

Other players in efforts to resolve the Venezuela crisis include the Lima Group, a coalition of Western Hemisphere countries from Argentina to Canada. Russia and China also have interests in Venezuela as big investors and financiers and, unlike the Lima Group and European Union, they have been leaning more to Maduro than Guaidó. 

Russia and China play an even more important role on the Korean Peninsula. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by the Moscow-based Interfax news agency as saying that the United States sought out Russian advice before Trump's meeting with Kim.

China, now engaged with the United States on trade talks, is Kim's main trading partner and North Korea's source of food and energy.

Both American leaders' overseas visits this week have potential impact. But Pence has a faster-moving, on-the-scene challenge, closer to home, for what that is ultimately worth.

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