Kim Jong-un’s sister begins unprecedented South Korea visit

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un's younger sister Kim Yo-jong arrives at Incheon International Airport, South Korea, in this photo taken by Kyodo February 9, 2018. (Reuters)

Kim Yo-jong is part of a diplomatic delegation led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam and the first member of the ruling dynasty to visit South Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister arrived in South Korea on Friday to begin an unprecedented three-day visit in which she will attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and then sit down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a luncheon at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Kim Yo-jong, who is probably Kim’s closest confidant and is a senior cadre in North Korea’s ruling party, is the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit South Korea, though her grandfather, Kim Il Sung, traveled to areas occupied by his troops south of what is now the Demilitarised Zone during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The trip has the potential to become something of a coming out party — certainly for Kim Yo-jong, but also for her deeply isolated country.

Kim Jong-un hasn’t set foot outside North Korea or met a single head of state since he assumed power upon the death of their father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. His single-minded pursuit of a nuclear arsenal to counter what he sees as the threat of invasion by the United States has ratcheted up tensions not only with his rivals but also with primary trading partner China and with Russia, once a key benefactor.

Kim Yo-jong’s arrival was broadcast live on South Korean television. Looking confident and relaxed, she had a brief meeting with South Korean officials, including Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, before being whisked away in a black limousine and catching the high-speed train to Pyeongchang.

At the age of 30, Kim Yo Jong is probably the most powerful woman in North Korea.

She has been rapidly rising within the North’s power structure and is believed to be in charge of shaping her brother’s public persona. But she has generally remained safely cloaked in her brother’s shadow. This is her first high-profile international appearance at center stage, though she is technically just a member of a delegation headed by the North’s senior statesman, 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam.

Just before the opening ceremony, Kim Yong Nam, the highest-ranking North Korean official to travel to the South, attended a dinner for visiting foreign dignitaries hosted by Moon. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was at the dinner and was also scheduled to attend the opening ceremony. Pence did not meet with the North Korean delegates, spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said.

For security reasons, few details of Kim’s three-day itinerary have been made public.

After arriving on Kim Jong-un’s personal jet at the South’s ultramodern Incheon International Airport— the North’s flagship airline is subject to sanctions — she traveled to Pyeongchang to attend the games’ opening ceremony, where the North and South Korean athletes will march together behind a blue-and-white “unification” flag.

That promised to be an emotionally charged moment.

The two Koreas, which remain technically at war, have cycled through countless periods of chill and thaw since their division 70 years ago. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and blew up a South Korean commercial airliner the year before. The past year has been particularly acrimonious as the North has accelerated its nuclear weapons development and test launches of missiles that are now believed to be able to reach most or all of the United States, South Korea’s most important ally.

The delegation’s most substantive event may come outside of the Olympic ambit on Saturday.

Along with the rest of the North’s senior delegation, Kim is to have lunch with Moon in Seoul. The meeting could turn out to be just a lunch, a photo op or a nicety. But it is so unprecedented, and its announcement on Thursday was so sudden, that rumors are already swirling it could open the door to much more — perhaps even an offer for Moon to travel to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

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