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Global media obsession with Kim Yo Jong sidelines Pence

Sheetal Sukhija - Monday 12th February, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea - At the Winter Olympics in South Korea, before the opening ceremony, all eyes were trained on how a possible meeting between the U.S. and North Korean side will play out.

However, with one of the most important part of the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, ending her historic visit to South Korea on Sunday - analysts noted that she successfully managed to steal the focus away from the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the event.

Last week, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decided to send a large delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and chose his only sister as his emissary.

Amid the global media eyeballs that the recently elevated sister of the North Korean leader received, the harsh message that Pence propagated - in the region most threatened by the North Korean nuclear program - got somewhat sidelined. 

While Pence remained focussed on the message that the U.S. has been propagating for months now, that of ratcheting up “maximum sanctions” until the North dismantles its nuclear arsenal - Kim Yo Jong delivered a message of reconciliation. 

U.S. media reports were quick to point out that in South Korea, news outlets instantly dubbed Kim Yo Jong “North Korea’s Ivanka,” likening her influence to that of Ivanka Trump on her father, President Donald Trump.

Jong was closely followed by the news media during her three-day visit to Seoul and to Pyeongchang and on Sunday night, she flew back to North Korea.

During her visit, not once did she speak in public and even managed to outflank Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, winning the game of diplomatic image-making.

Adding to everyone’s surprise, Jong even delivered an unexpected invitation from her brother to the South Korean president, Moon Jae In, to visit the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, reportedly for inter-Korean talks.

Through her stay, she made an appearance at the opening ceremony, then at the Olympic debut of the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team and then at a performance in Seoul by a North Korean art troupe.

To a large extent, analysts also pointed out that Pence did not make an appearance at a dinner hosted by the South Korean President before the opening ceremony. 

They noted that this meant Pence avoided spending much time with the North Korean delegation, including with Kim Yong Nam, the country’s ceremonial head of state.

Pence also remained seated when the unified Korean Olympic team marched into the stadium, receiving a standing ovation on Friday night.

Critics called Pence’s move disrespectful of the athletes and his host, Moon Jae In.

Mintaro Oba, a former diplomat at the State Department specializing in the Koreas, who now works as a speechwriter in Washington said in a statement that Pence is playing “right into North Korea’s hands by making it look like the U.S. is straying from its ally and actively undermining efforts for inter-Korean relations.”

Oba added that Jong, on the other hand, “is a very effective tip of the spear for the North Korean charm offensive.”

Korean affairs analysts, however, said that Pence had missed an opportunity.

Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut pointed out, “I think it would have been really helpful to the conversation of denuclearization for the Pences to have appreciated the effort put into bringing team unified Korea into the stadium. And it wouldn’t have lessened the American position.”

She added, “The fact that he and Mrs. Pence didn’t stand when the unified team came in was a new low in a bullying type of American diplomacy.”

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