North Korea is sending the influential sister of Kim Jong-un to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, officials said on Wednesday. Kim Yo-jong, believed to be around 30 years old, will be the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Analysts said her inclusion in the Olympic delegation shows North Korea’s ambition to use the Olympics to break out from diplomatic isolation by improving relations with the South, which it could use as a bridge for approaching the United States.
By sending a youthful, photogenic person who will undoubtedly attract international attention during the Olympics, North Korea is also trying to construct a fresher and warmer public image and defuse potential US efforts to use the Pyeongchang Games to highlight the North’s brutal human rights record, experts say.
Kim Jong-un might also have seen that US President Donald Trump was sending his daughter, Ivanka, to the Olympics ceremony and decided to match the move by sending his sister, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
By sending a relative, “Kim Jong-un may be trying to present himself as an equal to Donald Trump,” Hong said.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said North Korea informed it that Kim Yo-jong would be part of the delegation led by the country’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam. The ministry said Kim Yo-jong ‘s schedule in the South has yet to be determined, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether she will meet with President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who has expressed a desire to reach out to the North.
Moon’s office welcomed the decision to send Kim Yo-jong , which it said showed the North’s willingness to cooperate in efforts to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula.
“First Vice Director Kim Yo-jong is Chairman Kim Jong-un’s sister who has an important role in the Workers’ Party, (so her visit) is that much more meaningful,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said in a statement read on television.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Kim Yo-jong, as Kim Jong-un’s relative and apparently one of the few people who has earned his absolute trust, carries more weight as a dialogue partner for the South than any other official the North could send.
It’s unclear whether any member of the North Korean government delegation will hold talks with US officials during the Olympics. But Kim Yo-jong’s presence would give North Korea a better opportunity to win South Korean help in reaching out to the United States, Hong said. He also said Washington may see Kim Yo-jong as an avenue to deliver messages to Kim Jong-un.
“With any other North Korean official, even the so-called No 2 Choe Ryong-hae, you are getting a person who’s just parroting orders given by Kim Jong-un,” Hong said. “But with Kim Yo-jong, you are getting a person who’s chiefly involved in designing Kim Jong-un’s rule, a person whom the leader actually listens to.”
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Kim Yo-jong was being sent the games as part of a delegation making a three-day visit from Friday.
Yonhap said: “The North informed the South that Kim Yo-jong, the first vice director of the ruling party’s propaganda and agitation department, will be included in the 22-strong high-level delegation led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, according to South Korea’s unification ministry.”
It is understood that the delegation will attend the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday evening in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang.
The senior North Korean officials would potentially be rubbing shoulders with US Vice-President Mike Pence and other global leaders.
Yonhap also named two other officials in the delegation; Choe Hwi, the chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son-gwon, the head of the North’s stage agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
The sudden announcement last month to send the delegation suggested to some observers a thawing in relations between North and South Korea.
The two Koreas will march under one flag as the Games open, and will later be fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team.
However, some believe the decision to send a delegation of more than 200 athletes, officials, cheerleaders and entertainers, is part of a diplomatic manoeuvre to ease the impact of toughening economic sanctions on the regime.
Tensions remain high between the US and North Korea over Kim’s nuclear missile programme, with many in Washington wary of Pyongyang’s motives for participating in the Games.
Speculation has been rife on whether Kim Yo-jong, who has the same mother as the North Korean leader, would join the Olympic delegation.
North Korea | Inside the dysfunctional Kim family
Kim Yo-jong’s rise to prominence
Kim Jong-il, the ruler of North Korea until his death in 2011, proudly boasted in 2002 that the then teenage Kim Yo-jong, his youngest daughter, wanted a career in politics.
Now believed to be in her late twenties or aged 30, she has emerged as one of the most important figures in the North Korean political elite.
Her rise has been nurtured by Kim Jong-un, her brother and the current ruler of North Korea, who also shares the same mother as his sibling – Ko Yong-hui. They had a half brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was murdered last year at a Malaysian airport.
Kim Jong-un and his sister developed their close relationship living under the same roof together when they studied in Switzerland between 1996 and 2000, years which were marked by isolation.
The Kims resided in a heavily guarded private home during their time in Berne, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, a website run by academic Michael Madden.
“A school employee thought Kim was “overprotected” by “several women” that waited on her and drove her to school,” the website added.
After Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011, his sister was occasionally seen in the background of official photographs of him attending events.
In 2014 Kim Yo-jong was appointed vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department, a position which put her in charge of carefully crafting Kim’s image as a man of the people.
But last November she was elevated to North Korea’s reclusive politburo, replacing her aunt in the country’s top decision-making body.
South Korean media speculated last month that she may also have been promoted again to lead the rogue nation’s powerful state security apparatus.
The Chosun Ibo newspaper said that her role may have been indicated in December by her seating position at the ruling Worker’s Party congress.
Kim Yo-jong has now become one of the most high-profile women in North Korean public life, along with the leader’s wife, Ri Sol-ju.
But her position as a key political figure and trusted confidant of Kim Jong-un was underlined when it was announced that she would become the first member of the Kim family to go to South Korea.
Little is known of Kim Yo-jong’s private life, but she reportedly married the son of Choe Ryong-hae, the powerful party secretary, in 2015, and had a child soon after.
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