Kim Sends Sister to South Korea Olympics in Propaganda Coup

Updated on
  • Kim Yo Jong to attend Winter Olympic opening ceremony Friday
  • Likely to come bearing message from Kim to South Korea’s Moon
Kim Sends Sister to Olympics as Pence Talks North Korea Sanctions

Kim Jong Un named his sister to represent North Korea at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a historic visit that raises the drama as world leaders including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gather for the event.

Kim Yo Jong -- promoted by her brother last year to the ruling party’s political wing -- would be the Kim’s dynasty’s first official representative to set foot in the south. She plans to attend the Friday opening ceremony for the Winter Games in South Korea’s alpine town of Pyeongchang, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Wednesday.

The visit by a potential future leader of North Korea could be seen as a symbolic gesture by Kim to show he’s keen to maintain the current lull in tensions over his nuclear weapons program. But her presence also serves a propaganda purpose, stealing the spotlight from South Korea and putting more pressure on the alliance between Washington and Seoul.

How North Korea Managed to Crash the Olympics Party

Speculation about the visit was already high after Pence signaled he might be open to talks with North Korean officials while attending Olympics events. Complicating the issue is the fact that Kim Yo Jong is subject to U.S. sanctions for heading the nation’s propaganda department. Any contact Pence has with her could constitute a violation.

After a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Pence took a tough line against North Korea, telling reporters that the administration would “soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions. Pence will be joined at the Olympics by the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died last year after being jailed in North Korea.

“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” Pence said. “We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.”

Brother’s Message

While South Korea has eagerly engaged in talks with Kim, the White House has remained skeptical. The U.S. has expressed concern that the regime was using the ongoing talks -- and the decision by both countries to march together under a single flag during the opening ceremony -- to bolster its position back home.

Koh Yu-hwan, who teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Kim Yo Jong would likely carry a message from her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

This “is the clearest-ever sign that his intention to recover the inter-Korean relations is strong and he wants to show it to the world,” said Koh, who heads the advisory group for the presidential National Security Council. “North Korea has been trying to form this all-Koreans versus the U.S. rivalry, which the U.S. would feel uncomfortable with.”

The North Korean leader will also send Kim Yong Nam, the isolated regime’s ceremonial head of state, to lead the country’s delegation at the opening ceremony.

Same Mother

Believed to be in her late 20s, Kim Yo Jong shares the same mother as the North Korean leader. Their mother, Ko Yong Hui, was the fourth partner of former North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il.

The pair grew up together in the capital of Pyongyang and attended the same Swiss boarding school, the Yonhap News Agency has reported. Kim Yo Jong’s promotion last year brought her closer to the center of power in the isolated state.

She has appeared prominently and is seen as the most influential woman along with Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, in a country where family ties mean more than any title or rank. Their half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was murdered in February last year at a Malaysian airport with the chemical weapon VX. North Korea denies it played a role in the attack.

During his press conference with Pence on Wednesday, Abe said Japan and the U.S. would keep up maximum pressure on North Korea to give up its weapons. The two leaders pledged to step up efforts to keep North Korea from evading sanctions.

“We agreed that we must urge related countries not to be taken in by North Korea’s charm offensive,” Abe said.

— With assistance by Shinhye Kang, and Isabel Reynolds

(Updates with Pence, Abe remarks from fifth paragraph.)
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