Even before she touched down on her private jet in Seoul, the approach of the plane drew the world’s attention. Commentators analyzed her no-nonsense hairstyle and dress, her demure low-key makeup, and her seemingly kind, if diplomatic smile.
She’s the first member of the Kim Dynasty to step across the 38th Parallel, onto South Korean soil, and veritably into the international spotlight. While the United States brought an old, tired message to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang — that the U.S. would continue to ratchet up maximum sanctions until the North dismantled its nuclear arsenal — North Korea delivered a refreshing counterpoint of reconciliation. In a guest book at the Presidential Palace Kim expressed hope that “Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts,” underscoring a formal invitation from her brother, Kim Jon-un, to the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, “to visit soon.”
The Charm Offensive was further offset by Mike and Karen Pence. Refusing to stand when the Unified Korean Olympic Team entered the stadium, the U.S. Vice President and his wife looked like petulant, grimacing children refusing to participate at the Opening Ceremonies. Further undermining inter Korean relations, Pence drew the greatest reaction by avoiding the North Korean delegation entirely, including Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state. On the way home he’d explain that he wasn’t trying to avoid but rather ignore the North Korean delegation, and in so doing he and the United States discarded a moment that wasn’t merely patriotic, but a venerable tipping point for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
After the opening ceremony, delegates from the U.S., North Korea, and all 91 nations represented at the XXIII Olympic Winter Games would leave Pyeongchang county. For the next two weeks, the coverage would focus on the athletes and their sport. There were fits and starts of sensational reporting that appeared in social, cable, and network news. Team Russia wasn’t represented due to doping allegations, and the first openly gay athlete, Adam Rippon, became the first American to qualify and medal in the Winter Games.
Pyeongchang 2018 saw some unusual acts of athleticism, too. Red Gerard took the first gold medal for Team USA making him the youngest American to medal in a snowboarding event at the Olympics. The Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká was the first person to win two gold medals, in separate disciplines, at the same Winter Games. Finally, when the Russian Men’s Ice Hockey Team — completing under a neutral flag — won gold, they united to defy the IOC and sing their national anthem anyway.
Coverage of the XXIII Olympic Games was curated in nationalist terms, with every headline being tethered to particular nation or political narrative. Leaders came and went over the course of the next two weeks, yet one story seemed to trend over, through and above the rest. Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who worked in the royal household for years, called her “Princess Yo.”
In 2002, Kim Jong-il, proudly told foreign reporters that his youngest daughter was interested in politics and wanted a career in North Korea's political system. Konstantin Pulikovsky, Russia’s envoy to the Far East, also said that Kim Jong-il identified his youngest daughter’s interest in and aptitude for political life. “She has a quick wit and strong leadership skills,” Pulikovsky told the Japanese public broadcaster NHK in 2012.
Today she is tasked with “protecting and promoting her brother’s image.” As Kim Jong-un welcomed his little sister home from the Opening Ceremony, he praised South Korea for its “impressive” and “sincere” hosting of the Games. Kim Yo-jong led a delegation of officials and athletes whose attendance and participation in Pyeongchang is being seen as a warming of relations. “It is important to continue making good results,” Kim Jon Un said in an ostensibly historic shift of tenor, “by further livening up the warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue created by the strong desire and common will of the North and the South with the Winter Olympics as a momentum.”
What isn’t widely known is that Vice President Mike Pence had agreed to a secret meeting with North Korean officials while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. But on Feb. 10, less than two hours before the meeting with Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting.
North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence met with 4 North Korean defectors, urging them to tell their stories before the assembled news media. He visited the Cheonan Memorial, a tribute to 46 South Korean sailors who were killed in 2010 when their vessel was struck by a North Korean torpedo. He even hosted Fred Warmbier — father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died last year after North Korea detained him for 17 months for stealing a propaganda poster, then sent him home in a coma — at the opening of the Games.
He denounced the North’s nuclear ambitions, announced the strongest nuclear sanctions were yet to come, and sought to further strengthen, if solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea. But when he refused to stand when the North and South Korean delegations entered together under a united Korean flag, he lost the public relations war. Pence’s stony demeanor and ramrod posture at the Opening Ceremonies earned snarky reviews in the South Korean media, with some grousing that he had snubbed the North Koreans and even disrespected the Olympic Games. Still, all the world saw was a beautiful princess from North Korea, impeccable manners, a beautiful smile, whose seemingly demure presence seemingly crowned the inter-Korean Olympics “The Peace Games.”
This phenomenon runs deeper than a naïve storyline about a mysterious public figure that suddenly captured the interest of reporters and journalists. The media coverage of Kim Yo-jong reveals a bias that’s common when describing female participation in atrocities and political violence: that of the woman as a docile, harmless figure shaped by her circumstances rather than an autonomous entity that willingly chooses to engage in violent conflict and human rights abuses.
While Kim Yo-jong’s presence in Pyeongchang was historic and will, hopefully, bolster good faith between the North and the South, she still plays a crucial role in forming and implementing the brutal policies and propaganda of the Kim regime. Yet as Kim Yo-jong visited the South Korean presidential palace to deliver a handwritten note by her brother, the largest and most established Western media networks covered the event as they would a red-carpet stroll; discussing her sparkly top, how she wore her hair clipped back, and her freckles. There was little mention of her role in the Kim regime’s long list of human rights abuses, illicit financial networks, and destabilizing nuclear and missile programs.
This narrative — of women as inherently peaceful and non-violent creatures – is sexist, deceptive and erroneous to our understanding of human cruelty. Ivanka Trump’s garbled defense of her father’s sex abuse allegations at the Closing Ceremonies was a clear, if incredulous example. “I think I have that right, as a daughter, to believe my father,” she said, to his 15 accusers at the epicenter of the #MeToo Movement. That it was offset by Kim’s savvy to remain poised, quiet, and polite was merely an alternative style serving the ultimate goal of a leader—to maintain his state. "Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand," said Niccoló Machiavelli, the Father of Political Science. "All can see what you appear to be, while few will ever know who you really are."