In an unprecedented move, a key figure of North Korea's regime will be visiting South Korea this week as part of the North's government delegation to the Winter Olympics. Kim Yo Jong is Kim Jong Un's younger sister, and is therefore considered his closest relative, The New York Times reported. It is the first time that an immediate member of the Kim family will set foot in the South.
In 2014, Kim Yo Jong became the deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of North Korea's Workers' Party, prompting U.S. sanctions that directly targeted her. Then, late last year, she became an alternate member of the Political Bureau — Politburo — of the Central Committee of the Worker's Party, leading the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist her. According to the Times, South Korean media compares her to Ivanka Trump, a nod to the influence she has over Kim Jong Un. In fact, according to CNN, Kim Yo Jong reportedly took charge of North Korea for a brief period of time in 2014 while her brother was ill.
The U.S. and Japan have both expressed skepticism regarding the presence of a North Korean delegation at the Winter Olympics. Vice President Mike Pence — who will be attending the Opening Ceremony — said he wants to make sure that North Korea "doesn't use the powerful symbolism in the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime," while Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged people not to be be fooled by North Korea's 'smile diplomacy'."
South Korea, however, took a different tone. Having had to secure special permission from the U.S. and other allies to allow the North Korean delegation to cross the border, South Korea sees Kim Yo Jong's inclusion in the delegation as "meaningful."
"We believe that the North's announcement of the delegation shows its willingness to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula along with a message of celebration for the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games," South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
It is significant that the delegation also includes Kim Yo Jong, who is Chairman Kim Jong Un's sister and holds an important position in the Workers' Party of Korea.
Ever since 2011, when her older brother replaced their father as supreme leader, Kim Yo Jong has played a vital role in the North Korean government. She is the only immediate relative of her brother's who regularly appears in North Korean media, and she often goes to state ceremonies with him.
The Washington Post reported that Kim Yo Jong has been seen taking paperwork to her brother during important events, like a parade in Pyongyang in April, and seemed to be responsible for coordinating logistics during a construction project opening.
Kim Yo Jong was born in 1987 to Kim Jong Il and his third wife, Ko Yong Hui. She and her two older brothers — one of whom does not appear to be very involved with the regime — spent several years studying in Bern, Switzerland. Kim Yo Jong shares the “Paekdu bloodline” that Kim Jong Un often uses to justify succeeding his father — Paekdu being a volcano seen as spiritual in Korean culture — but as a woman, she would not be able to be supreme leader, the Post reported. Nonetheless, she is her brother's closest aide, and her influence in the current regime is clear.
According to the Times, Kim Yo Jong's itinerary as part of North Korea's Winter Olympics delegation includes a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Like Pence, she will be attending the Opening Ceremony on Friday.