Sister act: Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong visit dominates South Korea headlines

Ms Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shaking hands with South Korea President Moon Jae In at the Blue House in Seoul of Feb 10, 2018.
Ms Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shaking hands with South Korea President Moon Jae In at the Blue House in Seoul of Feb 10, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - A friendly face promising better times, or a mask to conceal a brutal dictatorship? South Koreans are divided on 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, Kim has been an instant object of fascination for South Korean and global media since she rode down the escalator at Incheon airport on Friday (Feb 9), 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 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’s not,” Kim Yo Jong said at a dinner Sunday night before heading home.

“There are many things similar and the same. 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 U.S. and South Korea, which differ on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.

Her visit amounted to a charm offensive designed to counter the US narrative that Kim Jong Un is a madman who tortures his own people and would blow up Los Angeles or New York City if he didn’t 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 Yang Moo Jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies at 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. "So maybe Kim Jong Un must be applauding at home."

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 AFP. "I don't trust it."

Others questioned the attention devoted to her.

"All the media in the South and the around the world are going gaga about Kim Yo Jong," said one commentator online.

"Looks like they would soon join the North's propaganda media to worship and idolise her."

Moon has long pushed engagement with the North - which is accused of widespread human rights abuses and subject to multiple sets of UN sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes - to bring it to the negotiating table.

His approval ratings have fallen since the deal for the North to take part in the Games was struck, with the decision to field a unified women's ice hockey team proving particularly controversial.

But one of the most widely welcomed moments of Kim Yo Jong'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."

'Smirk and sass'

Educated in Switzerland like her brother, Kim Yo Jong has risen rapidly up the ranks since he inherited power from their 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 professor Yang explained her most vital role: "She is one of a very few people who can talk freely about anything with the leader Kim."

Believed to be aged 30, her existence was barely known to the wider world until Kim Jong Il's funeral in 2011, when she was seen standing right behind her brother on state television, looking tearful and ashen-faced.

She demonstrated a very different demeanour on her visit than the "deferential" one she does in the North, said Korean Peninsula Future Forum analyst Duyeon Kim.

"Here, she projects Royal Family air, power, nose held high w/slight smirk saying she's superior over South, & charm w/smiles, sass," she tweeted.

Beyond the Olympic imagery of togetherness and unity, many South Koreans are openly sceptical.

"The Kim family is a grandmaster of disguise," said one.

Another declared: "Look at that girl acting like a well-behaving princess. No matter how nice she acts, nothing can sugarcoat all the human rights atrocities under her and her family."