North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, visits South Korea for the Olympics

 In U.S.
They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style. 

Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect. In looks-obsessed South Korea, many 20-something women list plastic surgery and brand-name bags as life goals.

Most of all, Kim Yo Jong was an enigma. Just like them, but nothing like them. A woman with a sphinxlike smile who gave nothing away during her three-day Olympic-related visit to South Korea as brother Kim Jong Un’s special envoy.

“I thought Kim Yo Jong was going to be so serious, but she smiled all the time, so she made a good first impression,” said Kwon Hee-sun, a 29-year-old South Korean woman attending the women’s ice hockey match at the Winter Olympics on Saturday night. The Korean teams had been combined — three North Koreans were playing during the game that night. 

“I’m curious about her. I wonder if she’s married. I think it’ll be very meaningful if she comes to the game,” Kwon said. She soon got her wish: Kim Yo Jong showed up to cheer on the united Korean team.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. The invitation was delivered in person by Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. (Reuters)

Kim is “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea” because of her family connections and her ability to be a compelling saleswoman, said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korean analyst at the CIA who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

South Korean television drew that exact parallel, noting that Kim Jong Un had sent his sister to the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, while President Trump was sending his daughter to the closing.

Very little is known about the generation that runs North Korea: leader Kim Jong Un and his glamorous wife, Ri Sol Ju; his reclusive older brother, Kim Jong Chul; and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. 

We know that the Kims, the children of second-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his Japanese-born ethnic Korean wife, Ko Yong Hui, all spent several years at school in Switzerland. We know Kim Jong Chul likes Eric Clapton because he’s been spotted at concerts around the world, most recently in London. We know Ri used to sing in a propaganda band. But that’s about it.

We don’t even know Kim Yo Jong’s age. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1987; the U.S. government thinks it was 1989.  

So when she arrived in South Korea on Friday afternoon, becoming the first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War broke out in 1950, South Koreans were enthralled.

If the outside world is puzzled by this regime that threatens nuclear war and deprives its people of food and information, just imagine how strange North Korea seems to those in the South. They speak the same language, share the same myths, love the same food. Yet the leaders are so foreign.

The wall-to-wall coverage began even before Kim stepped off her brother’s private jet at the Incheon airport, west of Seoul, on Friday afternoon. Television cameras broadcast footage of the runway, waiting for her to arrive. They noted that the plane had been given the flight number 615 — a reference to June 15, the final day of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

In the VIP room upon arrival at Incheon, television cameras showed a smiling Kim gesturing to Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old who is technically North Korea’s head of state and was in theory leading the delegation.

Both Koreas are bound by Confucian hierarchical rules that prize age and maleness and stipulate who should sit where according to seniority. Those rules mean, without question, that a 90-year-old male head of state should sit in the best seat.

But South Korean papers marveled at Kim Yo Jong’s “humbleness.”

“Kim Yo Jong is the closest figure to Kim Jong Un, since she also shares the blood of Kim Il Sung,” the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported, referring to the North Korean regime’s claim to legitimacy through divine bloodline. “Some analysts find it impossible to believe that Kim Yo Jong would yield a seat to Kim Yong Nam,” the paper said.

Then, from the moment she stepped out of the airport, there was a media scrum around her — well, around the four North Korean bodyguards who surrounded her as she walked through train stations and Olympic venues.

When she arrived at the presidential Blue House for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday morning, the cameras zoomed in on her high cheekbones and fine ears. No detail was too trivial to be noticed, to be commented on.

“Analysts say that she looks very much like Ko Yong Hui, her mother, when she was younger,” the Dong-A noted.

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