North Korea has announced it will send Kim Yo-jong, dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister, to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, making the high-ranking Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) official the first Kim family member to step foot in free South Korea since the countries split.
North Korea observers consider the younger Kim the closest relative to Kim Jong-un, known to have disappeared and executed relatives who he has found inconvenient in the past, and potentially the political confidante the dictator trusts the most.
“Kim Yo-jong is Kim Jong-un’s only sibling who is part of the North Korean leadership,” the South Korean newswire Yonhap notes. “Kim Jong-chol, the leader’s older brother, went out of the public eye after his younger brother took over the leadership. Kim Jong-nam, the leader’s half brother, was assassinated by apparent North Korean agents at Kuala Lumpur international airport in Malaysia last year.”
Korea’s Joongang Ilbo suggests that adding her to the already “massive” North Korean delegation expected to be in PyeongChang for Olympics Opening Ceremonies on Friday could be “a possible sign of better ties ahead.” Kim will not lead the political delegation—that responsibility goes to Kim Yong-nam (no known relation), nominally North Korea’s head of government. North Korea is, in theory, ruled by “Eternal President” Kim Il-Sung; Kim Jong-un weighs six titles, one of them being “Supreme Commander.” This smaller delegation consists of nearly two dozen people, though North Korea has also organized hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders, and “fans” to send south to the event.
Yonhap adds to this that Kim Yo-jong’s position “was officially confirmed by the North as the No. 2 post in a party department presumed to be the propaganda and agitation unit.” The outlet cites officials and “experts” suggesting that Kim will bring a personal message from her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose leftist, conciliatory policies have made North Korea’s presence at this event possible.
Joongang confirmed that North Korea requested Seoul allow Kim Yo-jong to enter the country for the Olympics but noted that there is no guarantee that it is legal for South Korea to allow her to enter. The United States added Kim to its North Korea sanctions list in January 2017, citing the long list of egregious human rights abuses attributable to Pyongyang. Moon’s government is reportedly consulting the United States to ensure they do not run afoul of sanctions in welcoming North Korean officials to the country.
“The government will consult with the international community to ensure (the visit causes) no controversy over sanctions,” an unnamed “ministry official” told Yonhap.
The announcement of Kim Yo-jong’s addition to North Korea’s VIP list follows remarks by Vice President Mike Pence, who will attend the Games representing America, that he is not entirely closed to interacting with North Korean counterparts.
“With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” Pence told reporters in Japan. “President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meetings. But we’ll see what happens.”
Pence has brought with him to the Games Fred Warmbier, the father of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who patronized the North Korean tourist industry before being arrested and tortured to death for allegedly tampering with a propaganda poster in Pyongyang. Warmbier’s presence will serve as a reminder of North Korea’s human rights abuses in the face of what many expect to be a major propaganda effort on the part of Kim’s regime.
Pence has told reporters he fears that North Korea “will hijack the messaging around the Olympics. The North Koreans have been master manipulators in the past. It’s a murderous state.” North Korean balloons have already begun dropping propaganda leaflets into South Korea, apparently for both residents and visiting North Koreans.