Pyeongchang: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister joined athletes and officials from around the world at the South’s Winter Olympics on Friday, the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in its rival since the Korean War.
Kim Yo Jong was part of a diplomatic delegation led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam — the highest-level North Korean official ever to go to the South — as the Games trigger a diplomatic rapprochement between the rivals.
Ahead of the opening ceremony the South’s President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Yong Nam at a leaders’ reception in Pyeongchang, where the two were to be seated at the top table — along with US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whose countries are regularly threatened by the North.
Moon is scheduled to have lunch with the Pyongyang delegation on Saturday.
Their white Ilyushin-62 jet, marked in Korean script “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, the North’s official name, and its tailfin emblazoned with a Northern emblem, touched down earlier at Incheon airport near Seoul, in a rare direct flight between the two halves of the divided peninsula.
The last member of the Kim family to set foot in Seoul was Ms. Yo Jong’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North’s founder, after his forces invaded in 1950 and the capital fell.
Three years later the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically in a state of war.
Now the North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, while the democratic South has risen to become the world’s 11th-largest economy.
Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong, both of them in dark coats with fur collars, were met at the airport by the South’s unification minister and other officials, exchanging pleasantries about the cold weather.
The leader’s sister looked relaxed, smiling calmly as she talked with them, before making her way through the terminal, with four bodyguards surrounding her closely, to take a high-speed train to Pyeongchang.
The delegation’s trip is the diplomatic high point of a Games-driven rapprochement between the two Koreas, with the dovish Moon pushing a “peace Olympics” that will open a door for dialogue to alleviate tensions and seek to persuade Pyongyang to give up its atomic ambitions.
But all eyes are on Ms. Yo Jong — a key member of the Kim dynasty that has ruled the impoverished, isolated nation with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult over three generations.
The family are revered in the North as the “Paektu bloodline”, named after the country’s highest mountain and supposed birthplace of the late leader Kim Jong Il.
Many analysts suggest Ms. Yo Jong may be carrying a personal message to Mr. Moon from her brother.
Tensions have been high on the peninsula since last year when the North staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear blast and test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) capable of reaching the US mainland.