Members of the family regime that’s long ruled North Korea tend not to pop up in South Korea—technically the countries are at war, after all. But Seoul’s unification ministry announced today (Feb. 7) that supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s influential younger sister Kim Yo-jong will attend the Winter Olympics, to be held in the South’s Pyeongchang County starting on Feb. 9.
In addition to being a senior official in the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim the sister is also vice director of North Korea’s propaganda and agitation department, where she plays a key role in spreading ideological messaging through the arts, media, and culture. Last October, she was promoted to alternate member of the nation’s Politburo. In short, despite her young age—she was born in September 1989, according to the US Treasury Department, though reports vary—she’s an extremely powerful individual in North Korea. Last year she was added to a US blacklist over censorship and human rights abuses.
It will be the first time a member of the ruling Kim family has visited South Korea.
She’ll go to South Korea as part of a high-level delegation that includes Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state in North Korea. Others in the group include Ri Son-gwon, chair of North Korea’s Committee for Peaceful Reunification, and Choe Hwi, head of the National Sports Guidance Committee.
Choe has also worked for the propaganda department and is subject to a travel ban under sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. The presence of both Kim and Choe, both steeped in regime messaging, heightens fears that North Korea will use the Olympics as a propaganda tool.
In late 2014 there was speculation that Kim the sister was temporarily running North Korea while her brother recuperated from an illness.
“It’s very difficult for the North Korean system to run without one of the Kim family at least titularly in charge,” Korea expert Victor Cha told CNN at the time. “So, if Kim Jong-un is indisposed, she’s really the only available body that’s left, in terms of a direct Kim family line.”
That also makes the decision to send her to South Korea all the more significant.