SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s 28-year-old sister will make her debut on the world stage when she visits South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics tomorrow, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
Pyongyang told Seoul that Kim Yo-jong would accompany Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, along with Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son-gwon, who led inter-Korean talks last month, according to the ministry.
Kim Yo-jong would be the first member of the Kim family, born on the sacred Mt Paektu, which is a centrepiece of the North’s idolisation and propaganda campaign, to cross the border to the South.
Her inclusion in the delegation is “meaningful” as she is not only the sister of the country’s leader but has a significant position as a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, the South’s presidential Blue House said.
“It shows the North’s resolve to defuse tension on the Korean peninsula,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a news briefing.
But the trip could become a source of contention between Seoul and Washington, as she was blacklisted last year by the US treasury department over human rights abuses and censorship, while Mr Choe faces a travel ban under UN Security Council sanctions.
Kim Yo-jong is vice director of the party’s propaganda and agitation department, which handles ideological messaging through the media, arts and culture. Mr Choe had previously worked for the same body.
In 2016, South Korea’s former spy chief said Kim Yo-jong was seen “abusing power”, punishing propaganda department executives for “minor mistakes”.
“One of the positives of her visit is that she is someone able to deliver a direct message on behalf of Kim Jong-un,” said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
“What is problematic is that she’s coming with Choe Hwi. … This raises worries that North Korea likely intends to use this Olympics as a propaganda tool, rather than a possible opening to meaningful dialogue with South Korea.”
The opening ceremony will also be attended by US Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders.
Mr Pence said after talks with Abe in Tokyo yesterday that Washington would soon unveil its toughest ever economic sanctions on North Korea, calling the country the “most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet”.
Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said: “The United States would be unhappy to see South Korea trying to undermine all the rigid sanctions that it had worked so hard to put in place by granting exemptions for the sake of the Olympics.
“Personally, Pence would feel uncomfortable just being in the same place with the North Koreans.”
Having previously only occasionally appeared in the background, the young heiress has moved to the front and centre of media photos more recently, assisting her brother at numerous state events.
In October, Kim Yo-jong was promoted to the party’s politburo, an opaque, all-powerful decision-making body that decides top state affairs.
The promotion is a sign Kim Jong-un is consolidating his position by drawing his most important people closer to the centre of power, experts and officials say.
On Tuesday, Kim Yo-jong was seen in state media greeting a North Korean art troupe that has since departed for the South to stage performances during the Olympics.
“She could deliver a message from Kim Jong-un in a way that conveys personal seriousness and commitment that even Kim Yong-nam couldn’t,” Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii, said.
“It may be a sign that Pyongyang is going to pull out all the stops in the next couple weeks, in terms of making plans with Seoul.”