SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister landed in the South Friday, the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in its rival since the Korean War.
Kim Yo-jong was part of a high-level diplomatic delegation led by the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam – its highest-level official ever to go to the South – as the Winter Olympics trigger a diplomatic rapprochement between the rivals.
Their white Ilyushin-62 jet marked in Korean script “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, the North’s official name, and its tailfin emblazoned with a Northern emblem, touched down at Incheon airport near Seoul.
The last member of the Kim family to set foot in Seoul was Yo Jong’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North’s founder after his forces invaded in 1950 and the capital fell.
Three years later the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone, and the two sides technically in a state of war.
Now the North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, while the democratic South has risen to become the world’s 11th-largest economy.
Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, both of them in dark coats with fur collars, were met by the South’s unification minister and other officials.
Their trip is the diplomatic high point of an Olympics-driven rapprochement between the two Koreas.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed the Games as a “peace Olympics” that will open a door for dialogue to alleviate tensions on the peninsula and seek to persuade Pyongyang to give up its atomic ambitions.
The delegation was due to take a high-speed train to Pyeongchang, where the Olympics opening ceremony would be held later Friday and attended by US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But all eyes are on Yo-jong – a key member of the Kim dynasty that has ruled the impoverished, isolated nation with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult through three generations.
Members of the family are widely revered in the North as “Paektu bloodline”, named after the country’s highest mountain and hailed as the supposed birthplace of the late leader Kim Jong Il.
Many analysts suggest Yo-jong may be carrying a personal message from her brother to his dovish South Korean counterpart Moon.
Tensions have been high on the peninsula since last year when the North staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and test-fired multiple long-range missiles, some of them capable of reaching the US mainland.
Leader Kim and US President Donald Trump exchanged threats of war and personal insults, sparking global alarm and fears of another conflict on the peninsula.
But Kim abruptly announced a plan to send athletes and high-level delegates to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in his new year speech, setting in motion a flurry of cross-border talks and activities.
The announcement – following months of cajoling by Seoul – is seen as a bid to defuse tensions and try to seek a loosening of the sanctions against it.
Hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders, and artists have already arrived in the South and the North’s state orchestra gave one of two planned concerts in the South on Thursday night to a packed audience.
But the latest rapprochement has met a backlash in the South with many accusing Seoul of making too many concessions to the wayward neighbour that even pushed ahead with a military parade on Thursday in Pyongyang in a showcase of its military might.
Conservative activists also accused Pyongyang of “hijacking” the South’s Winter Olympics and have held angry protests by burning the images of the leader Kim or the North’s national flag near venues where North Koreans made public appearances.
US Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the US delegation to the Olympics, renewed a call for “maximum pressure” on the North to force it abandons its nuclear weapon during a meeting with Moon Thursday.
But he did not rule out a meeting with the North’s delegates during the Games, saying there “may be a possibility for any kind of an encounter with North Koreans,” whether informal or formal.