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South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, after watching North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra's performance in Seoul, South Korea, February 11, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS(reuters_tickers)
By Christine Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - A prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her, a faint smile on her lips and eyelids low as four bodyguards jostle around her.
In her first appearance on the global stage, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had her every move closely scrutinised.
Crowds applauded as she stood for the South Korean anthem during the opening ceremony for the start of the Winter Olympic Games, while her big smiles and relaxed manner left a largely positive impression on the South Korean public.
But her sometimes aloof expression and high-tilted chin also spoke of someone who sees herself "of royalty” and “above anyone else", leadership experts and some critics said.
Kim Yo Jong's visit to South Korea, the first by a member of the North's ruling bloodline since their 1950-53 war, could hardly have come at a more acute time.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was also in town, leading international pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme and reminding the world of the Kim family's brutal regime.
When shaking hands or eating meals with officials such as South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim Yo Jong was all smiles, even agreeing to give a toast suddenly requested of her by the presidential Blue House's chief of staff.
"I can't speak very well in public," she told guests attending a dinner at the five-star Banyan Tree Club and Spa in Seoul.
"I never thought I would visit (the South) so suddenly and believed much would be strange and different but I saw many things that were similar or the same. I hope the day we become one comes soon and hope to see all your friendly faces in Pyongyang."
With so little known about her (even her age of 28 is unconfirmed), scrutiny on Kim Yo Jong was intense, dominating local media and internet chatrooms.
“Personally I think she looked very relaxed during her visit to South Korea," said Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector who works at the Seoul-based Daily NK website. "Her facial expressions were cool and she didn’t seem flustered."
Reportedly schooled in Switzerland, the youngest daughter of former leader Kim Jong Il was promoted by her brother to the country's top decision-making body in October.
Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership, said Kim Yo Jong left a largely positive impression on the South Korean public.
"North Korea used 'soft power' this time to engage the South and her being a woman may have contributed more in that aspect," Kim told Reuters.
Even her elegant, sloping handwriting was parsed in South Korean media. Experts said it conveyed confidence, superiority and reflected a positive attitude.
Not everyone was impressed, however.
Kim Yo Jong's aloof expression when she wasn't meeting with high-ranking South Korean government officials and high-tilted chin prompted scorn from many South Koreans, who said she looked "too haughty" or "uppity".
"Her neck is straight and her head is skewed to the right, automatically sending her gaze down. I think this comes from her thinking she is above everyone else," said Bae Sang-hoon, professor of police science at Seoul Digital University and a former criminal profiler at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
Critics also highlighted Kim Yo Jong's senior role in a regime accused by a United Nations inquiry of systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
Last January, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted her along with six other North Korean officials for “severe human rights abuses” and censorship that concealed the regime’s “inhumane and oppressive behaviour”.
"Among the upper class in Pyongyang, she is a frightening presence,” because of her relationship with her brother, said An Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer who now runs a think tank in Seoul. "She has been thought of as royalty since she was born, and she sees herself that way as well."
The body language of the high-ranking North Korean officials who accompanied her was also telling of her status in the North, said analysts.
North Korea's 90-year-old nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam deferred to her upon arrival, asking her to sit down first ahead of tea with the South's unification minister.
It is customary in Korea and some other Asian countries for the highest ranking, usually the eldest, person in the group to sit down first for a meal or meeting.
While Kim Yo Jong demurred in front of the cameras, insisting Kim Yong Nam sit first, the impression had been made.
"This showed Kim Yo Jong was the real person in power, and not just because of her lineage," said Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.
(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast)