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 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 Olympic delegation shows North Korea's ambition to use the Olympics 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 the North's willingness to cooperate in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It wasn't immediately clear whether Kim Yo Jong will meet with Moon, a liberal who has expressed a desire to reach out to the North.
While South Korea prepared to welcome Kim Yo Jong, Vice President Mike Pence said in Japan that the U.S. is preparing to announce the "toughest and most aggressive" economic sanctions against North Korea, boosting pressure on its government during the Olympics. U.S. officials declined to provide details of the expected sanctions.
Experts said 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 U.S. efforts to use the Olympics to highlight the North's brutal human rights record.
Kim Jong Un might also have seen that U.S. 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," Hong said.
Kim Yo Jong 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 Kim Yo Jong, as Kim Jong Un'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 U.S. officials during the Olympics.
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 programs.
Hong, the analyst, said Kim Yo Jong's presence would give North Korea a better opportunity to win South Korean help in reaching out to the United States. He also said Washington may see Kim Yo Jong as an avenue to deliver messages to Kim Jong Un.
"With any other North Korean official, even the so-called No. 2 Choe Ryong Hae, you are getting a person who's just parroting orders given by Kim Jong Un," 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.
Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un 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.
Kim Yo Jong 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 cooperating 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 programs. Skeptics think North Korea is trying to use the Olympics to weaken U.S.-led sanctions and pressure against it and buy time to advance its weapons programs.
North Korea 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 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.