New US-North Korea battleground: Olympic relatives

Winston Churchill once observed that jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war in international relations. Where on that scale does travel-travel sit? North Korea’s delegation to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, which starts on Friday, will include the first member of the dictatorial dynasty to enter South Korea — Kim Jong-un’s sister Yo Jong, who is in charge of propaganda for the regime.

Mike Pence insists that the Kim regime won’t be allowed to hijack the Olympiad for its propaganda efforts, but Reuters also reminds viewers that Pence is bringing the parents of Otto Warmbier, who was mortally injured while in North Korean custody:

The Washington Post sees this as a positive step in peninsular relations:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, an increasingly prominent figure in the country’s leadership, will be part of the North’s delegation to the South Korean Winter Olympics, officials said Wednesday. Kim Yo Jong, believed to be around 30, will be the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Analysts say her inclusion in the Olympic delegation shows North Korea’s ambition to use the Olympics to break out from diplomatic isolation by improving relations with the South, which it could use as a bridge for approaching the United States.

By sending a youthful, photogenic person who will undoubtedly attract international attention during the Olympics, North Korea is also trying to construct a fresher and warmer public image and defuse potential U.S. efforts to use the Pyeongchang Games to highlight the North’s brutal human rights record, experts say.

CBS sees a more cynical motive, one aimed at the US rather than a reach-out to its neighbor:

Kim Jong Un might also have seen that President Donald Trump was sending his daughter, Ivanka, to the Olympics ceremony and decided to match the move by sending his sister, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

By sending a relative, “Kim Jong Un may be trying to present himself as an equal to Donald Trump,” Hong said.

In other words, both sides are leveraging the Olympics for political gain. And … that makes it pretty much the same as every other Olympiad ever staged. The nature of the competition makes it a political event on the grandest scale, with national pride and interests tied so closely to the competition that the judging has long been questioned for its bias. It’s better to compete on athletics, or on the relative star power of relatives, than on throw weights and ICBM range. And this is at least a little healthier than the war of personal insults that has erupted between Trump and Kim over the last year.

Still, it’s very interesting to see a Kim dynasty member cross the 38th Parallel, and then to see what she’ll do once she arrives. South Korean president Moon Jae-in campaigned on a policy of engagement, and he has an opportunity to talk directly with a top member of the Kim regime for the next fortnight. Will Yo Jong agree to meet directly? And if so, what would she be authorized to negotiate on behalf of her brother? Two more intriguing possibilities exist as well — could Yo Jong meet with Pence, or with Ivanka? CBS ponders the opportunities:

It’s unclear whether any member of the North Korean government delegation will hold talks with U.S. officials during the Olympics. But Kim Yo Jong’s presence would give North Korea a better opportunity to win South Korean help in reaching out to the United States, Hong said. He also said Washington may see Kim Yo Jong as an avenue to deliver messages to Kim Jong Un.

“With any other North Korean official, even the so-called No. 2 Choe Ryong Hae, you are getting a person who’s just parroting orders given by Kim Jong Un,” Hong said. “But with Kim Yo Jong, you are getting a person who’s chiefly involved in designing Kim Jong Un’s rule, a person whom the leader actually listens to.”

We could always bring Dennis Rodman to make the introductions. Kidding! But as long as we’re spitballing, what might the possibilities be for a Yo Jong defection? Presumably very low, especially considering what happened to her older brother Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur and other family members back home. But considering the potential to end up on the wrong end of an anti-aircraft artillery shell in Pyongyang, perhaps not non-existent either. If it happens, it would be the biggest gold medal ever won at an Olympics.