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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

North Korea's Kim sends sister to South Korea Olympics in propaganda coup

Kim Yo Jong, believed to be around 30, will be the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 13, 2017. Damir Sagolj / Reuters
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 13, 2017. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, an increasingly prominent figure in the country's leadership, will be part of the North's delegation to the South Korean Winter Olympics, officials said on Wednesday.

Kim Yo Jong, believed to be around 30, will be the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Analysts say her inclusion in the Olympics delegation shows North Korea's ambition to use the Games to break out from diplomatic isolation by improving relations with the South, which it could use as a bridge for approaching the United States.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's office welcomed North Korea's decision, saying it showed Pyongyang's willingness to co-operate in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It wasn't immediately clear whether Ms Kim will meet with Mr Moon, a liberal who has expressed a desire to reach out to the North.

While South Korea prepared to welcome Ms Kim, US vice president Mike Pence said in Japan that the Washington was preparing to announce the "toughest and most aggressive" economic sanctions against North Korea, boosting pressure on its government during the Olympics. US officials declined to provide details of the expected sanctions.

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Experts said that by sending a youthful, photogenic person who will undoubtedly attract international attention during the games, North Korea is trying to construct a fresher and warmer public image and defuse potential US efforts to use the Olympics to highlight the North's brutal human rights record.

Mr Kim, the North Korean leader, might also have seen that US president Donald Trump was sending his daughter, Ivanka, to the Olympics closing ceremony and decided to match the move by sending his sister, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification.

By sending a relative, "Kim Jong Un may be trying to present himself as an equal to Donald Trump", the analyst said.

Ms Kim will be part of a North Korean delegation led by the country's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Ms Kim, as the leader's relative and apparently one of the few people who has earned his absolute trust, carries more weight as a dialogue partner for the South than any other official the North could send.

It's unclear whether any member of the North Korean government delegation will hold talks with US officials during the Olympics.

Mr Pence did not rule out a possible meeting with North Korean officials, telling reporters, "we'll see what happens". But he pledged that his message in any potential interaction would include the same message he has been delivering publicly: that the North must renounce its nuclear weapon and missile programmes.

Mr Hong, the analyst, said Ms Kim's presence would give North Korea a better opportunity to win South Korea's help in reaching out to the US. He also said Washington may see Ms Kim as an avenue to deliver messages to her brother.

"With any other North Korean official, even the so-called number two Choe Ryong Hae, you are getting a person who's just parroting orders given by Kim Jong Un," Mr Hong said. "But with Kim Yo Jong, you are getting a person who's chiefly involved in designing Kim Jong Un's rule, a person whom the leader actually listens to."

North Korea said the delegation will also include Choe Hwi, chairman of the country's National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North's agency that deals with inter-Korean affairs.

Ms Kim and her brother, the leader, were born to the same mother, Ko Yong Hui. They had a half brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was murdered last year at a Malaysian airport.

Ms Kim was promoted by her brother last year to be an alternate member of the decision-making political bureau of the ruling party's central committee, which analysts said showed that her activities are more substantive than previously thought.

The war-separated Koreas are co-operating on a series of conciliatory measures during the Olympics, which the South sees as an opportunity to ease tensions with the North following an extended period of animosity over its nuclear weapon and missile programmes. Sceptics think North Korea is trying to use the Olympics to weaken US-led sanctions and pressure against it and buy time to advance its weapons programmes.

Pyongyang has 22 athletes competing in the Winter Olympics but also has sent performing artists and a large cheering group.

A decision by North Korea to send the artists by sea has triggered debate in the South, where conservatives see the move as a clear indication that the North is trying to use the Olympics to ease sanctions against it.

South Korea is deciding whether to accept North Korea's request that it provide fuel for the ferry that transported the artists. Seoul exempted the ferry from sanctions to allow it in South Korean waters.

"We will closely discuss with the United States and other related nations the matter of providing convenience to the Mangyongbong ferry so that no problem regarding sanctions would occur," said Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman, Baik Tae-hyun.