North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is sending his younger sister Kim Yo Jong to attend the Winter Olympics in South Korea, marking the first time anyone from his immediate family will set foot in the country.
The fact that Pyongyang is sending Kim Yo Jong, who is a senior North Korean official, to South Korea is another sign that tensions between the two countries may be thawing. Last month, North and South Korea agreed to march under one flag at the Winter Games and had their first high-level talks in about two years.
But the historic move could also increase the likelihood of a strategic rift between South Korea and the US, since Washington is generally more skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and more inclined to lay out preconditions tied to its nuclear program for high-level talks.
The South Korean government announced on Wednesday that Kim Yo Jong will attend the opening ceremony for the games on Friday, along with Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, and other North Korean officials.
Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be around 30, has quickly ascended the political ranks in Pyongyang. Last year, Kim Jong Un promoted her to become a member of the country’s influential Politburo, the top decision-making body in the North Korean government (she can attend meetings but isn’t allowed to vote on decisions). She’s also a vice director of North Korea’s propaganda department, and, analysts say, one of her brother’s closest confidants.
South Korea’s unification ministry said her inclusion in the North Korean Olympic delegation was “meaningful” because of how senior she is.
The White House has said that President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka will be leading the US delegation to the closing ceremony. Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in South Korea, told the Associated Press that this may have inspired North Korea to send Kim Yo Jong.
In recent days, analysts have speculated about potential diplomatic breakthroughs with North Korea at the upcoming Olympics. On Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence, who will be attending the Winter Games, signaled that he could be open to a conversation with North Korean officials. When asked by reporters about a potential meeting, Pence said he had not requested one, “but we’ll see what happens.” His comments echoed similar statements that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made to reporters in Peru the same day.
If Pence or other high-ranking US officials meet with the North Koreans at the Winter Olympics, that could be a significant breakthrough in the US-North Korean standoff over its nuclear program, analysts say. Washington is waging an international isolation campaign against North Korea over its rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs, and has no official diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
But even if the Trump administration is considering talks with the North Korean delegation, it doesn’t mean that the tense standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program is going to dissipate anytime soon.
After meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Wednesday, Pence announced that the US will “soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.”
He added, “We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.”