North Korea’s First Family Is Playing Its Trump Card to Win Olympic Spotlight

The first families of the U.S. and North Korea will both be represented at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Just hours after the White House confirmed to CNN and the  BBC that first daughter Ivanka Trump will be attending the Winter Olympics closing ceremony on February 25, North Korea notified Seoul that a member of the ruling Kim family will visit its southern neighbor for the first time.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has decided to send his younger sister Kim Yo Jong along with the high-level delegation slated to attend the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday. The South Korean government welcomed the decision as another sign the regime is serious about defusing tensions on the peninsula.

02_06_Kim_sister Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 13, 2017. Kim has decided to send Kim Yo Jong along with the high-level delegation slated to attend the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday. Damir Sagolj/File Photo/Reuters

“We believe North Korea’s delegation contains the North’s willingness to celebrate the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games and also reduce tension,” South Korean presidential office spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a press briefing, quoted in the Yonhap news agency.

The delegation also includes North Korean nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam; the chairman of the country’s national sports guidance committee Choe Hwi; and Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland and who led the North Korean delegation in the talks with South Korea in January.

Both Choe and Kim Yo Jong have been subject to U.S. sanctions since January last year for their role in human rights abuses and censorship activities in their country. At the time, Kim Yo Jong held the role of vice-director of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department. She has since been named as an alternate member of the politburo within the party, the country’s opaque and powerful governing body.

“One of the positives of her visit is that she is someone able to deliver a direct message on behalf of Kim Jong Un,” Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, told Reuters, adding however that the presence of Hwi suggests North Korea’s priority is not the opening of meaningful dialogue, but exploiting the spotlight for propaganda purposes.

02_06_Orchestra_Korea Members of a North Korean arts troupe arrive at Mukho Port, in Donghae, South Korea, ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Game on February 7. The orchestra is scheduled to hold two performances at the Gangneung Art Center on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics, which run from February 9 to 25, and at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul on February 11. Song Kyeong-Seok/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea has sent its best performers to the South in what observers have called a “charm offensive.” The 140-member orchestra already arrived in South Korea by ferry on Tuesday while the 280-member delegation, including 26 taekwondo athletes, 21 journalists and 229 cheerleaders arrived after crossing the land border on Wednesday, South Korean media reported.

The cheering squad is made up solely of women—who were all wearing matching red coats with black accessories and North Korean flags pinned to their chests—selected according to strict criteria.

02_06_Cheer_Squad Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7. The squad is made up solely of women—who were all wearing matching red coats with black accessories and North Korean flags pinned to their chests—selected according to strict criteria. Yonhap/Reuters

“They must be over 163 centimeters [5 feet 3 inches] tall and come from good families,” An Chan-Il, a former North Korean soldier who defected to the South in 1979 and now runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told Agence France-Presse. “Those who play an instrument are from a band, and others are mostly students at the elite Kim Il-Sung University.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, vowed to counter North Korea’s attempt to “hijack” the Olympics and to highlight the country’s appalling human rights record. He has invited the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who suffered brain damage while detained in North Korea and died shortly after being returned in a comatose state to the U.S. last year, to join him at the ceremony.

Delivering a speech in Japan on Wednesday, Pence anticipated a new round of sanctions against North Korea, which he called the “toughest and most aggressive” to date. It remains unclear whether the U.S. and the North Korean delegations will attempt any contact while in South Korea. The South Korean government did not comment on the issue, saying it would be up to the U.S. and North Korea, but neither the State Department nor Pence have clearly ruled out that possibility.

“With respect to the vice president’s trip to the Olympics and whether or not there would be an opportunity for any kind of a meeting with North Korea, I think we’ll just see. We’ll see what happens,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday

The vice president echoed that statement while in Alaska before leaving for Japan. “Let me say President Trump has said he always believes in talking, but I haven’t requested any meeting,” Pence said Monday. “But we’ll see what happens.”