Kim Yo Jong's visit dominates headlines in South Korea

Above: US Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife stand with Ms Kim Yo Jong at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday. Left: South Korean President Moon Jae In talking with Ms Kim during North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra's perf
South Korean President Moon Jae In talking with Ms Kim during North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra’s performance in Seoul on Sunday. With them is Mr Moon’s wife and North Korea’s ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam. PHOTO: REUTERS
Above: US Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife stand with Ms Kim Yo Jong at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday. Left: South Korean President Moon Jae In talking with Ms Kim during North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra's perf
US Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife stand with Ms Kim Yo Jong at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SEOUL • A friendly face promising better times, or a mask to conceal a brutal dictatorship? South Koreans are divided on Ms Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North's leader, and her landmark visit to their country.

The first member of the North's ruling dynasty to set foot in the South since the end of the war, Ms Kim has been an instant object of fascination for South Korean and global media since she rode down the escalator at Incheon Airport last Friday, calmly surveying the scene.

She shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae In, cheered enthusiastically for a unified Korean team and displayed a sense of humour in weekend meetings.

She also delivered a letter inviting Mr Moon to a summit with her brother in Pyongyang, and asked him to play a leading role in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades.

"I never expected to come here on such short notice, to be honest, and I thought it would be strange and different, but it is not," Ms Kim said at a dinner on Sunday night before heading home. "I hope we can quickly become one and meet these good people again in Pyongyang."

The warm words were aimed at further exploiting divisions between the United States and South Korea, which differ on the best way to rid the North of nuclear weapons.

Her visit amounted to a charm offensive designed to counter the US narrative that her brother is a madman who tortures his own people and would blow up Los Angeles or New York if he did not get his way.

 
 

Every detail of her visit as the key member of a diplomatic delegation to the South's Winter Olympics has been scrutinised, from the clothes she wore and her facial expression to the bag she was carrying and even her handwriting.

One calligraphy expert described her as "positive, upbeat and very goal-oriented" based on the precisely angular, somewhat girlish script she left in the guestbook at the South's presidential Blue House.

Her brother - the third generation of her family to rule the isolated and impoverished North - will be pleased with her international diplomatic debut, said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"Kim kept smiling, but at the same time was rarely seen having her head down during the visit, even to our President," he said.

Reactions among ordinary South Koreans have been more mixed.

"They fired missiles until recently and conducted a nuclear test before suddenly launching this peace campaign," businessman Kim Byoung-gwan told Agence France-Presse. "I don't trust it."

But one of the most widely welcomed moments of Ms Kim's visit was when both she and the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam stood as the South's flag was raised and anthem played at the Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang.

"I hate Moon and I hate the North," read an online comment. "But the scene was undeniably impressive. I hope the action came from sincerity for peace, not a fake gesture."

Educated in Switzerland like her brother, Ms Kim - believed to be aged 30 - has risen rapidly up the ranks since he inherited power from their late father Kim Jong Il, and she is now one of his closest confidantes in a country where elite politics have always been a family affair.

Officially, she is first vice-department director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party, and has a position in its important propaganda operations.

But Prof Yang explained her most vital role: "She is one of a very few people who can talk freely about anything with the leader Kim."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'Kim Yo Jong's visit dominates headlines in S. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe