World News

Sister of North Korean Leader Arrives in South Korea for Highly Symbolic Trip

Posted February 9, 2018 12:43 p.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — Senior North Korean officials, including the only sister of the North’s leader, arrived in South Korea on Friday, starting a three-day trip that is to include a meeting with South Korea’s president, the highest-level inter-Korean contact in more than a decade.

The 22-member government delegation, including Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, whose family has ruled North Korea since its founding seven decades ago, traveled by private plane from the North.

Although the delegation is officially led by Kim Yong Nam, who as president of the Presidium of the North Korean Parliament is the North’s nominal head of state, it is Kim Yo Jong’s inclusion that has made the trip highly symbolic.

The two were greeted at Incheon International Airport by Cho Myoung-gyon, who as South Korea’s unification minister is in charge of relations with the North. At an airport reception room, Kim Yong Nam, who is about three times Kim Yo Jong’s age, asked her to sit first, a reversal of the tradition of deferring to elders that was seen as a signifier of Kim Yo Jong’s status.

Smiling, Kim Yo Jong insisted that Kim Yong Nam sit first.

Kim Yo Jong, believed to be 30, is the first immediate member of the North’s ruling family to set foot in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. She is an important player in her brother’s secretive administration and is considered to be one of his most trusted aides. In the North’s dynastic system, her blood ties with Kim Jong Un give her unmatched access and influence.

On Friday evening, the North Korean visitors joined foreign dignitaries, including Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics being held in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang.

The convergence of political figures raises the possibility of extraordinary diplomatic encounters between the North Koreans and the leaders of their sworn enemies.

President Moon Jae-in has said he will host a luncheon for the North Koreans on Saturday. It was unclear whether Moon, a dogged proponent of dialogue with North Korea, would try to broker a meeting between Pence and the North Koreans.

Pence has said he would use his visit to counter the North’s propaganda and remind the world of its abuses and atrocities. On Friday, he met with defectors from the North and with Fred Warmbier, an American whose son Otto died last year after months of imprisonment in the North.

They met at a memorial to the Cheonan, a South Korean warship sunk in 2010 by what is widely believed to have been a North Korean torpedo. One of the defectors, Ji Seong Ho, who was a guest at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last month, became visibly emotional and embraced Warmbier three times.

Another defector, Lee Hyeon Seo, said that the news media should focus on the impoverished people of North Korea struggling to survive a harsh winter, and not on the Olympics. Kim Jong Un rattled the world last year by accelerating his efforts to build a nuclear missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. He tested a series of long-range missiles and conducted his country’s most powerful nuclear test.

After ignoring Moon’s repeated invitations to the Olympics, Kim in a New Year’s Day speech surprisingly proposed sending North Korean athletes to the games — while at the same time claiming to have a “nuclear button” on his desk that could launch missiles capable of reaching the continental United States.

The Olympics gesture set off a series of talks and agreements between the two Koreas, which have dominated headlines in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Both Koreas agreed to march together in the opening ceremony and compete side by side in women’s hockey, forming their first joint Olympic team. Hundreds of musicians and singers from the North have arrived to perform on the sidelines of the Olympic Games.

Kim Yo Jong’s appearance in South Korea is a rare instance of high-level inter-Korean contact. She is not believed to have ever before met a South Korean official.

In 2000, her father, Kim Jong Il, held a summit meeting with Kim Dae-jung, then South Korea’s president, but he did not keep his promise to visit the South for a second meeting. In 2007, Roh Moo-hyun, then the South’s president, visited North Korea for the second inter-Korean summit meeting.

Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and power was passed to his third son, Kim Jong Un.

Kim Yo Jong and another member of the North Korean delegation, Choe Hwi, were blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in January 2017 over allegations of involvement in “serious human rights abuses and censorship activities.” Kim is believed to be a first vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which is responsible for censorship of newspapers and broadcast media.

Last June, the United Nations Security Council included Choe in a list of 14 North Korean officials designated for an asset freeze and travel ban for their involvement in the North’s nuclear weapons program. Choe is visiting South Korea as chairman of the North’s National Sports Guidance Committee.

It was unclear whether Kim Jong Un was sending a message to Moon through his sister. Moon has said he is willing to meet Kim Jong Un if he is reasonably sure that such a meeting would help end the crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile development program.

Speaking at a reception for foreign dignitaries before the opening ceremony, Moon noted the political significance of the Olympics.

“Had it not been for the Pyeongchang Olympics, some of us might not have had chance to be together in the same room,” he said.