PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – She arrived via private jet, and as Kim Yo Jong swaggered and smiled through Incheon International Airport as the first member of her family to walk on South Korean soil in nearly seven decades, it was clear she was here to steal the show.
South Korea had waited years for this day, the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Games here in the mountains near its eastern coast.
Yet it quickly belonged to the most unlikely of visitors, the kid sister of Kim Jong Un, the dangerous, dictatorial leader of North Korea, the isolated, heavily sanctioned, nuclear-armed rogue nation that sits on the other side of a demilitarized zone.
Kim Yo Jong’s arrival became a moment of fascination in the South. It generated wall-to-wall coverage on national television, with her walk played on a constant loop. Likewise, her image was immediately plastered across newspapers and social media.
Few in South Korea have ever seen a North Korean in person (and vice versa). The image they have isn’t of a woman believed to be in her late 20s, adorned in a stylish black coat and bag, her hair pulled back. She looked little like her bloated, blustery brother. Her father, the late dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly described her as the country’s “princess.” She’s been dubbed in the media as the “North Korean Ivanka.”
Soon she and the 22-person delegations he led took a high-speed train to the Olympic Stadium, where she sat directly behind South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who shook her hand. That visual, and many others of her, were a key part of the highly rated South Korean broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies as the fascination grew.
Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to hold a trusted position in her brother’s regime, and Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet Saturday to discuss the tense situation between the two nations. Moon has reiterated the South’s longstanding desire for unification of the peninsula, which has been divided since the start of the Korean war in 1950. A ceasefire was agreed to in 1953. The nations are technically still at war.
Of late, relations have worsened as Kim Jong Un, who took over for his father in 2011, built up the North’s military, including the development of intercontinental missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and reach the U.S. mainland. The United States and South Korea have responded with increasingly crippling economic sanctions.
The Olympics have offered a chance for, if not a reset, then perhaps a thawing between the two Koreas. Moon Jae-in has dubbed these the “Peace Olympics” eager to ratchet things down with his unpredictable neighbor.
The North is clearly using the opportunity to present a new image to the world. It sent a contingent of athletes to compete and agreed to have them march with South Koreans as part of a “unified” team. The two nations combined to field a women’s ice hockey team, which plays here Saturday, a game Kim Yo Jong may attend.
The North also sent a group of cheerleaders and a performance troop that staged a concert in nearby Gangneung and will do another this weekend in Seoul. They played pop hits and pro-unification songs. Tickets were so coveted by curious South Koreans that a lottery was needed to issue them.
Nothing and no one has had the immediate impact of Kim Yo Jong, though.
She’s believed to have an increasing presence in the North Korean government and occasionally is seen in the background of photos of Kim Jong Un on state-run media. Not since her grandfather, who founded North Korea in 1950, has a member of her family ventured to the South.
She was educated in Switzerland and is said to enjoy shopping in Paris. She appeared confident and sophisticated at the airport and warm and welcoming at the Opening Ceremonies, where she stood and cheered the entry of the unified Korean team.
It was a far cry for a country with a repulsive record for human rights whose people, under the three-generation rule of the Kims, are mostly uneducated and living in hopeless poverty.
This is the backdrop of these Olympics, though, a nation divided. It is the backdrop of almost everything on the Korean peninsula. The South hurtling into the future as a global economic power, built to compete. The North a mysterious and sad reminder of worse days for humanity.
Each side is forever trying to win a war of propaganda, using images to sell their side of the DMZ. For the North, that’s mainly meant military parades and rocket launches.
Here on Friday, though, it was a fresh face, a young woman who arrived in an attempt to change the narrative. What the future entails remains unknown, but for one day at least, she mesmerized the country.
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