PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — South Korea’s dream of making the Winter Olympics the “peace Games” began taking shape Wednesday, with busloads of North Koreans arriving and an announcement that Kim Jong Un’s sister would follow soon.
Almost 300 North Koreans — including 229 young women in fur-trimmed red coats, members of a “cheering squad” — crossed the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. They were driven through Seoul, along clogged highways past a forest of apartment towers, to the east coast.
There, the cheering squad, North Korean reporters and taekwondo demonstrators were housed not far from the 140 North Korean orchestra members who arrived earlier by ferry. They will perform Thursday.
“Coming from a formerly divided country and having competed for a divided country into two different teams, this is very special and also an emotional moment,” Thomas Bach, the German who leads the International Olympic Committee, said Wednesday.
The Games are shaping up to be a special moment for the South Korean government, too.
North Korea on Wednesday informed South Korean authorities that Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s younger sister and close adviser, plans to attend the Olympics as part of a high-level delegation.
Kim Yo Jong’s name was included in a list of officials submitted to the South’s Unification Ministry.
If the visit takes place, she would become the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea, and it would be seen here as a sign that the Kim regime is serious about improving ties with the government in Seoul.
Kim Yo Jong is expected to arrive Friday for a three-day visit and to attend the Opening Ceremonies — the same event where the United States will be represented by Vice President Pence.
Bach, the IOC president, avoided answering a question about seating arrangements at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
Pence has refused to comment on whether he would meet any North Korean officials, and other Trump administration officials gave coy answers this week.
“Vice President Pence is quite capable of making the call on that there, while he’s in Korea,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Wednesday.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Latin America that any meeting will be evaluated depending on “how it might be presented to us” but that U.S. officials don’t anticipate a meeting.
“We will see whether an opportunity even presents itself,” Tillerson said. “The North Koreans are going to be there, we know they are going to be there. So we will just see.”
Both Pence and Kim Yo Jong are deputies with the ability to speak directly to their bosses. However, Kim Yo Jong has been sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses.
Speculation had already been rife in South Korea that Kim Jong Un might send his younger sister, who was shown on North Korean television waving farewell to the cheering squad as it departed Pyongyang Station Tuesday.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government has been eager to improve ties with the North and to show the Trump administration, amid increasing talk about military action, that diplomacy can work with Pyongyang.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House welcomed the news that Kim Yo Jong would be in the delegation, calling her inclusion “significant.”
“We believe that the North’s announcement of the delegation shows its willingness to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula along with a message of celebration for the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said.
The South Korean government will make sure the Northern delegation experiences “no inconvenience” during its stay in the South, he said.
But experts said there were several ways to interpret Kim Yo Jong’s inclusion in the delegation.
“If you want a credible interlocutor for the North Korean government, it should be a member of the Kim family,” said Christopher Green, senior adviser for the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group. “But seeing her at Pyongyang station waving everyone off was a reminder that she’s in the propaganda business.”
Indeed, if North Korea’s goal was to drive a wedge between South Korea and its U.S. ally, it made sense to send such a senior official “with a nice letter from Kim Jong Un” to ask Seoul to cancel the joint military exercises that have been delayed until after the Games, Green said.
North Korean authorities had already said that they would send Kim Yong Nam, who is technically North Korea’s head of state, as part of a 22-member high-level delegation that will attend the Opening Ceremonies.
Also on the delegation list sent to the South on Wednesday were Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son Kwon, head of the agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
Both Kim Yo Jong and Choe have been directly sanctioned by the U.S. government, accused of human rights violations because they are involved in censorship activities. Choe has also been sanctioned by the United Nations.
Already, South Korea has contravened its own sanctions by allowing the prohibited ferry carrying the orchestra members to dock.
Kim Yo Jong, who is 28, according to the Treasury Department, is one of the North Korean leader’s closest aides and is often seen at her brother’s side.
They have an older brother, Kim Jong Chul, who is not thought to play a significant role in the regime but is sometimes spotted at Eric Clapton concerts abroad.
The three were born to North Korea’s second leader, Kim Jong Il, and his third wife, Ko Yong Hui, an ethnic Korean dancer who was born in Japan. All three spent several years attending schools in Bern, Switzerland.
The Kim family asserts its legitimacy to lead North Korea through a kind of divine right purportedly bestowed from Mount Paektu, a volcano on the border with China that has mythical status in Korean culture.
Kim Jong Un, who is 34, has played up this “Paektu bloodline” as he has sought to cement his claim to be his father’s rightful successor.
His older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, also shared this bloodline, and that was probably why he was killed last year: to take out a potential rival for the leadership. Kim Jong Nam died within half an hour of being smeared with VX, a chemical weapon, at a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, airport in an attack blamed on the North Korean leader.
Kim Yo Jong shares this same blood, but, as a woman, she could never be leader of this strict Confucian society. She has, however, been elevated through the regime to play an important role supporting her brother.
She was promoted to deputy director of the Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department in 2014, which prompted the Treasury Department to sanction her by name in January last year for her role in censoring information in North Korea.
Then, in October, Kim promoted her to the powerful political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party, making her the only woman there.
Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.