SEOUL — A prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half swept back captured a lot of attention early during the Winter Olympics games, but she was far from an athlete. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, holds the title of Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. She has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for human rights abuses.
Still, she received positive U.S. media coverage of her appearance on behalf of North Korea at the games, sparking widespread criticism.
CNN said she was “stealing the show,” while The Washington Post called her the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea” in one headline. The New York Times said she “turned on the charm” and took “Pence’s spotlight,” referring to the American vice president who attended with the father of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died from injuries sustained while imprisoned in North Korea.
David French, senior fellow at the National Review Institute, said North Korea’s effort to use Kim Yo Jong for propaganda highlighted media’s “weapons-grade gullibility.”
“A media fail this large displays all the press’ faults at once — partisanship, ideology, and clickbait culture come together to create a perfect storm of stupidity,” said French in a editorial published by National Review.
With so little known about her (even her age of 28 is unconfirmed), scrutiny on Kim Yo Jong was intense, dominating local media and internet chatrooms.
Reportedly schooled in Switzerland and the youngest daughter of former leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Yo Jong holds a senior role in a regime accused by a United Nations inquiry of systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
Last January, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted her along with six other North Korean officials for “severe human rights abuses” and censorship that concealed the regime’s “inhumane and oppressive behavior.”
“Among the upper class in Pyongyang, she is a frightening presence” because of her relationship with her brother, said An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who now runs a think tank in Seoul. “She has been thought of as royalty since she was born, and she sees herself that way as well.”
Crowds applauded as she stood for the South Korean anthem during the opening ceremony, but Kim Yo Jong’s aloof expression and high-tilted chin when she wasn’t meeting with high-ranking South Korean government officials prompted scorn from many South Koreans.
“Her neck is straight, and her head is skewed to the right, automatically sending her gaze down. I think this comes from her thinking she is above everyone else,” said Bae Sang-hoon, professor of police science at Seoul Digital University and a former criminal profiler at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
Kim Yo Jong’s visit to South Korea, the first by a member of the North’s ruling bloodline since their 1950-53 war, could hardly have come at a more acute time.
While the United States has appeared to endorse deeper post-Olympics engagement between the two Koreas, it has also stressed the need to ramp up sanctions to force North Korea to give up development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.
On Tuesday, the U.S. director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said North Korea presented “a potentially existential” threat to the United States and said time was running out to act on the threat.
“Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this,” Coats told a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Our goal is a peaceful settlement. We are using maximum pressure on North Korea in various ways.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the same hearing there was “no indication there’s any strategic change” in Kim’s desire to retain a nuclear threat to the United States.
He said last month that North Korea could be only “a handful of months” away from being able wage a nuclear attack on the U.S.
Reuters News Service contributed to this report.