Asia Pacific

Kim Jong Un's sister back in public eye at North Korea's 'mass games'

AP, AFP-JIJI

The powerful younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended a public event in Pyongyang for the first time in more than 50 days, casting further doubt on media speculation he had ordered her to lay low over the failed nuclear summit with Washington.

North Korea’s state media Tuesday showed Kim Yo Jong clapping aside her brother, his wife and other top officials at the 150,000-seat May Day Stadium where thousands of gymnasts, dancers and flip-card-wielding spectators worked in precise unison to perform “The Land of the People.”

The official Korean Central News Agency said the performers showed “beautiful and graceful rhythmic movements, high-spirited gymnastics, interesting national emotion and rich artistic depiction,” but also that Kim Jong Un was quite unhappy about their display. He seriously criticized the creators for their “wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude” and set forth “important tasks” to correctly implement the country’s revolutionary policy on literature and art, the agency said.

State media often reports on Kim scolding factory officials, educators and others perceived as not performing to his standards. The “mass games” events were once routine in North Korea but were on hiatus for several years during the mourning for Kim’s father and only returned last year.

Kim Yo Jong is a senior official of North Korea’s ruling party and is believed to be her brother’s closest confidant. She had accompanied him to his summits with President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and had joined other dignitaries in the stands at last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

But speculations about her status grew after she was left out from her brother’s trip to Vladivostok, Russia, in April for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. North Korean media had last shown her at a meeting of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament on April 12.

South Korea’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper last week cited an unidentified source to report that Kim Jong Un had ordered his sister to lay low following the collapse of his summit with Trump in February over mismatched demands in sanctions relief and nuclear disarmament. The newspaper had also reported Kim had punished his former top nuclear envoy, Kim Yong Chol, who North Korean media showed at the mass games and at a weekend concert of military wives.

Senior envoy Kim Hyok Chol, who the Chosun reported had been executed along with four Foreign Ministry officials for betrayal, has not been seen by the media since the end of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.

South Korea’s government and media have a mixed record on tracking developments among North Korea’s ruling elite, made difficult by Pyongyang’s stringent control of information about them. Although North Korea has previously banished or executed scapegoats to atone for major political flops, experts doubted the recent reports, saying such extreme punishments were unlikely unless Kim Jong Un was abandoning negotiations with the United States.

Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said Kim Yo Jong would not have been seen at the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting in April had she been disciplined over the summit failure. Cheong said it’s more likely she was reappearing after a period of rest.

The North’s mass games propaganda displays kicked off their 2019 run Monday.

Following rehearsals over several months, vast numbers of people in colorful costumes took part in a precision synchronized performance at the cavernous stadium, portraying moments from Korean history and modern life.

North Korean artistic performances are closely watched by observers for clues as to the authorities’ priorities, such as whether they are highlighting economic achievements or military progress.

The show, known in the North as a “Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance,” is expected to run for five months, into October.

Traditionally, the scenes on the arena floor take place against an ever-changing backdrop, made up of thousands of children turning the colored pages of books in sequence to create giant images rippling across one side of the stadium.

Guinness World Records lists a 2007 performance of a previous version of the mass games, known as Arirang, as the world’s largest gymnastic display, with 100,090 participants.

The resources involved are significant, even though the performers are largely students and schoolchildren. But the impoverished North, which is under several sets of sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, does generate tourism revenue from the displays.

This year tickets for foreign tourists cost from €100 to €800 ($110 to $900), according to Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based agency that organizes trips to the North.

The 2018 show was the first time the North had staged the mass games in five years, during which it conducted four nuclear tests along with multiple long-range missile tests, heightening tensions in the region.

But after a rapid diplomatic rapprochement on and around the peninsula, South Korean President Moon Jae-in watched a mass games performance last September. His attendance came during a three-day trip to Pyongyang for a third summit with his North Korean counterpart, and Moon made a speech to the crowd.

Moon was instrumental in brokering the first U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore in June 2018.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5