GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style.
Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect. In looks-obsessed South Korea, many 20-something women list plastic surgery and brand-name bags as life goals.
Most of all, Kim Yo Jong was an enigma. Just like them, but nothing like them. A woman with a sphinxlike smile who gave nothing away during her three-day Olympic-related visit to South Korea as brother Kim Jong Un’s special envoy.
“I thought Kim Yo Jong was going to be so serious, but she smiled all the time, so she made a good first impression,” said Kwon Hee-sun, a 29-year-old South Korean woman attending the women’s ice hockey match at the Winter Olympics on Saturday night. The Korean teams had been combined — three North Koreans were playing during the game that night.
“I’m curious about her. I wonder if she’s married. I think it’ll be very meaningful if she comes to the game,” Kwon said. She soon got her wish: Kim Yo Jong showed up to cheer on the united Korean team.
Kim is “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea” because of her family connections and her ability to be a compelling saleswoman, said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korean analyst at the CIA who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
South Korean television drew that exact parallel, noting that Kim Jong Un had sent his sister to the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, while President Trump was sending his daughter to the closing.
Very little is known about the generation that runs North Korea: leader Kim Jong Un and his glamorous wife, Ri Sol Ju; his reclusive older brother, Kim Jong Chul; and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.
We know that the Kims, the children of second-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his Japanese-born ethnic Korean wife, Ko Yong Hui, all spent several years at school in Switzerland. We know Kim Jong Chul likes Eric Clapton because he’s been spotted at concerts around the world, most recently in London. We know Ri used to sing in a propaganda band. But that’s about it.
We don’t even know Kim Yo Jong’s age. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1987; the U.S. government thinks it was 1989.
So when she arrived in South Korea on Friday afternoon, becoming the first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War broke out in 1950, South Koreans were enthralled.
If the outside world is puzzled by this regime that threatens nuclear war and deprives its people of food and information, just imagine how strange North Korea seems to those in the South. They speak the same language, share the same myths, love the same food. Yet the leaders are so foreign.
The wall-to-wall coverage began even before Kim stepped off her brother’s private jet at the Incheon airport, west of Seoul, on Friday afternoon. Television cameras broadcast footage of the runway, waiting for her to arrive. They noted that the plane had been given the flight number 615 — a reference to June 15, the final day of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.
In the VIP room upon arrival at Incheon, television cameras showed a smiling Kim gesturing to Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old who is technically North Korea’s head of state and was in theory leading the delegation.
Both Koreas are bound by Confucian hierarchical rules that prize age and maleness and stipulate who should sit where according to seniority. Those rules mean, without question, that a 90-year-old male head of state should sit in the best seat.
But South Korean papers marveled at Kim Yo Jong’s “humbleness.”
“Kim Yo Jong is the closest figure to Kim Jong Un, since she also shares the blood of Kim Il Sung,” the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported, referring to the North Korean regime’s claim to legitimacy through divine bloodline. “Some analysts find it impossible to believe that Kim Yo Jong would yield a seat to Kim Yong Nam,” the paper said.
Then, from the moment she stepped out of the airport, there was a media scrum around her — well, around the four North Korean bodyguards who surrounded her as she walked through train stations and Olympic venues.
When she arrived at the presidential Blue House for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday morning, the cameras zoomed in on her high cheekbones and fine ears. No detail was too trivial to be noticed, to be commented on.
“Analysts say that she looks very much like Ko Yong Hui, her mother, when she was younger,” the Dong-A noted.
Look at her posture, the commentators said. She sat so upright — maybe she’d been a dancer like her mother — and was so well mannered.
Look at her unusual handwriting, they said after Kim Yo Jong wrote a message in the guest book at the Blue House, which — of course — then appeared everywhere. The cross strokes were all angled, making her handwriting look like a kind of calligraphy.
“I hope Pyongyang and Seoul will become closer in the hearts of Koreans and will bring unification and prosperity in the near future,” she had written.
Somehow, Kim managed to pass the whole visit without uttering a word in public. Moving through the crowds, she kept her Mona Lisa face on and her mouth closed. When local journalists asked her how she felt to be in South Korea, she didn’t respond. She just smiled. Footage from the meetings she had with Moon showed her again smiling and relaxed, but the cameras didn’t catch a single word.
“I thought she was really pretty,” said Moon Jin-young, a 19-year-old student. But she wasn’t sure how humble the visitor was. “She didn’t look nice, because she kept her chin up all the time, so it looked as if she was always looking down on others.”
Certainly, Kim, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses related to her role in censoring information, was treated like royalty during her visit.
The government provided a Hyundai Genesis, a luxury car that the media noted could be made bulletproof, to ferry her around. She stayed in the five-star Sheraton Grand Walkerhill hotel on the outskirts of Seoul, which markets itself as “the ultimate place to relax and unwind.”
For lunch with Moon, the North Korean delegation was served grilled flatfish, soup with dried fish balls, buckwheat crepes with persimmon sauce and two types of kimchi. There was dried persimmon and walnut cake for dessert.
Then for dinner, her South Korean hosts took her to a fancy restaurant in Gangneung, on the east coast, before the hockey game.
Vice President Pence, who was also in South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics but studiously avoided Kim, had worried in advance that North Korea would “hijack” the Olympic Games with its “propaganda.”
Pence and his staff were alarmed by news last month that South Koreans were dazzled by the arrival of Hyon Song Wol, a singer in North Korea's all-female Moranbong Band and a rising political star in Kim’s regime.
His worries were well founded.
Those who saw Kim at the hockey game were puzzled by the mismatch between the gruesome stories they’d heard and the slight young woman before them.
“Kim Yo Jong kept smiling, and she seemed nice,” said Lee Ryoon-ryong, a 25-year-old man at Saturday’s match. “I was surprised because she looked different from the image I had about North Koreans.”
He figured, however, she must have a strong personality behind that smiling face.
Indeed, CSIS’s Terry warned against being sucked in by Kim’s good-cop routine. “Kim Yo Jong is totalitarianism with a human face,” she said. “She is acting as a goodwill ambassador for a country that has earned no goodwill.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.