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Moon Jae-in, Kim Yo Jong Handshake an Unexpected Show of Unity at Olympics

Image: Moon Jae-in, Kim Yo Jong Handshake an Unexpected Show of Unity at Olympics

President of South Korea Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-Sook, at left, stand immediately in front of Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife are front right. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Friday, 09 February 2018 09:27 AM

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shared an unexpected handshake at the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics on Friday night.

The sister of North Korea's leader shook hands with the president of host country South Korea — and appeared genuinely pleased — while they watched an elaborate show of light, sound, and human performance, The Associated Press reported.

Minutes later came a moment stunning in its optics and its implications: the United States, represented by Vice President Mike Pence, sitting a row ahead of Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, and the North's 90-year-old nominal head of state, all watching the games begin.

Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam were seated behind Moon and his wife, while Pence and his wife were seated between the Moons and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Not long after, North and South Korean athletes entered Olympic Stadium together, waving flags showing a unified Korea. It was the rivals' first joint Olympic march since 2007. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach then handed the podium to Moon, who declared the Olympics officially open.

The ceremony's signature moment delivered another flash of unity and deft political stage-managing, too. Two athletes from the joint Koreas women's hockey team climbed stairs to the cauldron with the Olympic torch. At the last moment, though, they handed off the flame to former Olympic champion figure skater Yuna Kim, arguably South Korea's most famous person. She actually lit the cauldron as the home crowd roared.

Moon, in a statement, said athletes from North and South will "work together for victory." And Bach lauded the joint march of the two Koreas as a "powerful message."

"We are all touched by this wonderful gesture. We all join and support you in your message of peace," Bach said.

The significance of Pence and the North Koreans sitting in the same box was not immediately clear, though it seemed to run counter to the mission he was supposed to undertake. He'd been dispatched from Washington for the Olympics in part, he said, to make sure the world didn't forget that North Korea was a misbehaving and dangerous neighbor in the community of nations.

What did seem clear was that, deliberately or not, the North Korean government had managed to edge its way onto center stage during the South's biggest global moment in years.

A huge crowd gathered in the freezing Olympics Stadium as performances displayed the sweep of Korean history and culture. The march of athletes from the world's many nations saw them girded against a frigid Korean night with temperatures that dipped below freezing and biting winds.

Members of a delegation from North Korea, part of an Olympics partnership between the two Korean rivals, watched from high in the stadium a performance called "The Land of Peace" and as past South Korean athletes paraded a large southern flag. The North Koreans, dressed in identical garb, cheered in careful coordination.

The North has sent nearly 500 people to the Pyeongchang Games including officials, athletes, artists and cheerleaders after the Koreas agreed to a series of conciliatory gestures to mark the games. More than 2,900 athletes from 92 countries will compete here, making it the biggest Winter Olympics to date.

At the age of 30, Kim Yo Jong is quite possibly the most powerful woman in North Korea. Just a few years younger than her brother, she is believed to be Kim's closest confidant and is a senior cadre in North Korea's ruling party.

Her arrival on Kim's private jet with a coterie of 22 officials was broadcast live on South Korean television.

Looking confident and relaxed, she had a brief meeting at the airport with South Korean officials, including Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, before being whisked away in a black limousine and catching the high-speed train to the mountains of Pyeongchang. As a sign of her status, the elder Kim Yong Nam offered her the seat of honor at the airport meeting, but she politely declined.

The trip comes amid a flurry of activity following Kim Jong Un's surprise proposal on New Year's Day to send a delegation of athletes, officials, entertainers and cheering groups to the Olympics.

His decision to dispatch his sister to the games is all the more significant since Kim Jong Un himself hasn't set foot outside North Korea or met a single head of state since he assumed power upon the death of their father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. His single-minded pursuit of a nuclear arsenal to counter what he sees as the threat of invasion by the United States has ratcheted up tensions not only with his rivals but also with primary trading partner China and with Russia, once a key benefactor.

This is the first time a member of the Kim dynasty has traveled to South Korea, though their grandfather, Kim Il Sung, went to areas occupied by his troops south of what is now the Demilitarized Zone during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Kim Yo Jong has been rapidly rising within the North's power structure and is believed to be in charge of shaping her brother's public persona. But she has generally remained safely cloaked in her brother's shadow. This is her first high-profile international appearance at center stage, though she is technically just a member of a delegation headed by Kim Yong Nam.

Just before the opening ceremony, Kim Yong Nam attended a dinner for visiting foreign dignitaries hosted by Moon. Pence was also at the dinner and reportedly refused to shake the elderly North Korean's hand.

For security reasons, few details of Kim Yo Jong's three-day itinerary have been made public.

The two Koreas, which remain technically at war, have cycled through countless periods of chill and thaw since their division 70 years ago. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and blew up a South Korean commercial airliner the year before. The past year has been particularly acrimonious as the North has accelerated its nuclear weapons development and test launches of missiles that are now believed to be able to reach most or all of the United States, South Korea's most important ally.

The delegation's most substantive event may come outside of the Olympic ambit on Saturday.

Along with the rest of the North's senior delegation, Kim Yo Jong was to have lunch with Moon at the presidential Blue House. The meeting could turn out to be just a lunch, a photo op or a nicety. But it is so unprecedented, and its announcement on Thursday was so sudden, that rumors are already swirling it could open the door to much more — perhaps even an offer for Moon to travel to Pyongyang, the North's capital.

The North and South held summits in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, both hosted by Kim Jong Il.

Considering the depth and complexity of the problems that keep the Koreas apart, it's highly unlikely a luncheon would lead to an immediate breakthrough on something like the North's nuclear weapons development. Pence, who is using his visit to South Korea to underscore the Trump administration's policy of maximum pressure on the North, has publicly and repeatedly warned Seoul not to let down its guard to a North Korean charm offensive.

But during her stay, Kim Yo Jong will have ample opportunity to play up the feel-good side of her country's participation in the games.

The first hockey match featuring the joint North-South women's ice hockey will be held Saturday night — they play Switzerland, where both Kim Jong Un and his sister went to school when they were children — and that would be an event she might want to see. The North has also sent a several hundred women-strong cheering squad, an orchestra with singers and dancers and a demonstration taekwondo team that will perform in Seoul and places near the Olympic venues.

Security for anything involving the North Koreans has been exceptionally tight.

The North's participation has been generally welcomed, but right-wing protesters have shown up at several venues to burn North Korean flags and tear up portraits of Kim's brother. The group is fringe, but their demonstrations have generated irate reactions in North Korea's state-run media and could potentially spin out into a major incident if they ever manage to get closer to the North Koreans themselves — or especially Kim and her entourage.

So far, police have kept the two at a safe distance.

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

   
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South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shared an unexpected handshake at the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics on Friday night.
moon jae in, kim yo jong, handshake, north korea, south korea
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2018-27-09
Friday, 09 February 2018 09:27 AM
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