North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with his sister Kim Yo-jong (background) in Kangwon province. Photo: AFP via KCNA/KNS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with his sister Kim Yo-jong (background) in Kangwon province. Photo: AFP via KCNA/KNS

The first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty ever to visit South Korea will arrive on February 9 for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, will attend the Olympiad’s opening ceremony, it was announced by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Wednesday.

Kim is the first vice-director of Pyongyang’s powerful Propaganda and Agitation Department. She is reportedly a key manager of her brother’s image and is often filmed with him at official events.

“She is the only member of the ‘Mount Baekdu Bloodline’ to visit South Korea,” said Sun Ki-young a research fellow at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification, on Kim.  

Sun was referring to the iconic mountain in North Korea where second-generation leader Kim Jong-il was, according to North Korean propaganda, born during his father Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla battles against Imperial Japanese forces.

 “We have very limited information about what she has been doing in the North Korean regime, but she is known to be in charge of cultural aspects of government,” Sun added. “Alongside that, she is one of the very few people who can directly access Kim Jong-un himself.”

Korea was divided in 1945. Two states emerged on the peninsula in 1948, and fought a murderous war from 1950-53.

She will be joining Kim Yong-nam, the North’s ancient – he is 90 – ceremonial head of state, who is seen as a largely ceremonial figure with questionable decision-making leeway. The two share the same surname – common in the Koreas – but are not related. Two other high-level officials, whose identities are not yet known, will also attend, in addition to 18 working-level staff.

However, Ms. Kim has been sanctioned by the United States for her connections to censorship and human rights violations, which may raise a ticklish issue for Seoul.

A further issue is that North Korea has reportedly asked South Korea for fuel for a ship it is using to ferry an orchestra to the Games, and to accommodate them while they are there. If South Korean grants that request, it would violate UN sanctions. Meanwhile, North Korea stands accused of stealing millions by hacking into cryptocurrency exchanges.

Still, Ms. Kim’s appearance could herald the highest-ever meeting between North Korean and the United States. US Vice President Mike Pence, who will also attend the opening ceremony, told reporters in Alaska on Monday, when asked about a possible meeting with the North Korean delegation to the Games, “I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens.”

US Vice President Mike Pence and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands after their meeting at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo on February 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai

However, even given the sub-zero temperatures of Pyeongchang, such a meeting could prove chilly.

Pence’s delegation includes Fred Warmbier, father of Otto, the American student who died in mysterious circumstances after going into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea. According to some reports, Pence will also visit a village of North Korean refugees in the South.

Speaking at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo today, Pence took a very hard line towards Pyongyang.

In South Korea, his next destination, Pence said he would “remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet,” and made clear that he would “not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner.”

Saying that the Trump administration would “not repeat the mistakes of the past” – a clear reference to the Obama administration’s policy of so-called strategic patience – he said that “all options are on the table,” and made reference to the powerful US military assets currently deployed to the region. He continued, “We will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea, ever.”

Such tough talk may not please Moon Jae-in.

The South Korean President has dubbed Pyeongchang “The Peace Olympics.” His hope is that – while North Korea completes strategic weapons programs and the United States speaks publicly of a pre-emptive strike – goodwill built up during the games will lead to ongoing discussions on substantive issues in the spring.

Members of the North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, on February 7, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

The North will deploy 23 athletes, several hundred cheerleaders, an orchestra and a troupe of taekwondo performers to the Games, and will form a unified team with the South Korean Women’s Ice Hockey squad

However, Seoul and Washington have agreed to resume joint military drills, which always infuriate the North, after the Paralympics end on March 18.

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