In the heavily guarded demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas is a place named Kijong-dong, better known as the North’s “Propaganda Village”. In its centre sits a 160-metre pole bearing a giant North Korean flag. The marker appeared as an act of one-upmanship, after South Korea installed a 98-metre flagpole in the nearby village of Daeseong-dong. At 270kg, the North Korean flag is so heavy it can barely fly.
This sort of hollow stunt is typical of the opaque, nuclear-armed Stalinist regime; its current “charm offensive” at the Winter Olympics in South Korea may be no exception. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (who succeeded their late father Kim Jong-il in 2012), received a celebrity’s welcome in Pyeongchang, being praised in the local media for her modest attire, polite manner and even her fine cheekbones. Yet will her attendance at the Games really start to thaw the decades-long froideur between the two countries?
As vice-director of propaganda and agitation for the ruling Workers’ Party, 30-year-old Yo-jong is one of North Korea’s most powerful figures, with significant influence over her brother and his image. She has attempted to build a “man of the people” cult of personality around Jong-un, who is a few years her senior (his exact age is unknown). Yo-jong is thought to have masterminded recent bizarre photos of the dictator on fairground rides, riding horses, and trying his hand gleefully at factory work.
The siblings bonded while studying in Switzerland from 1996 to 2000 in temporary isolation from the regime (reportedly to lessen the influence of Kim Il-sung, their late grandfather, who founded the communist state in 1948).Together, they have endured defections of close family members and the death of their mother, Ko Yong-hui, from breast cancer in 2004. In 2014, Yo-jong married Choe Song, the son of a powerful party secretary, helping cement her place in the inner circle.
North Korea experts have greeted her arrival in the public eye with scepticism, with many criticising the fevered media coverage. This has been tinged with sexism; some publications dubbed Yo-jong the “new Ivanka Trump” (the US president’s daughter and aide is often described as a moderating influence). Oh Young-jin, of the English-language Korea Times, wrote: “Often, she [Yo-jong] looked cheerful and was caught suppressing a smile, and at other times humble. Rarely did she look haughty or arrogant… she looked fit and appeared nimble, compared to her brother and other male members of her family who are fat.”
Even the New York Times claimed that, with her “sphinx-like smile and without ever speaking in public”, Yo-jong “managed to outflank Mr Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, vice-president Mike Pence, in the game of diplomatic image-making”.
But has her government done anything to merit such praise? The unified Korean women’s ice hockey team – featuring 12 players from the North and 23 from the South – was greeted with rapturous applause, including from Pyongyang’s army of government-dispatched cheerleaders (Korea lost the match 8-0 to Switzerland). But following a suggestion that the players should win the Nobel Peace Prize, South Korea-based political science professor Robert E Kelly tweeted: “This is getting ridiculous. Can we have some actual movement on inter-Korean issues before we all get so carried away by the Olympics?”
Many in the South believe the North’s diplomatic display is merely a tactical attempt to divide Seoul and the US. Yet if the North is seeking a genuine rapprochement, its timing could be worse. South Korea’s new president, former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, has pursued a policy of engagement with Pyongyang since his election in May 2017. Detractors have labelled him “Moonshine” and he was criticised by Donald Trump and young South Korean liberals following Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September 2017.
Yet Moon persists in trying to lead his recalcitrant neighbour to the negotiating table. And though Trump’s reckless baiting of North Korea has caused many to fear imminent nuclear war, Pence signalled that the US approach could soften. The vice-president told the Washington Post that the US was willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions, pursuing “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time”.
The unabashed enthusiasm for Yo-jong’s wardrobe and distinctive facial expressions operates in this context. South Korea’s hotel staff were schooled in how not to offend their North Korean guests (don’t mention their leader by name; definitely don’t mention their nuclear programme). During the Olympic opening ceremony, the sight of athletes from both Koreas waving the blue and white reunification flag – matching the neutral UN colours of buildings in the demilitarised zone – made for a moving spectacle. But photo opportunities won’t help the millions suffering under the Kim family’s despotic rule.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist