The National Today

Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, to lead North Korea's Olympic delegation

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

People at a Railway Station in Seoul watch a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and his sister Kim Yo-jong on Wednesday. Kim Yo-jong, an increasingly prominent figure in the country's leadership, will be part of the North's delegation coming to South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

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TODAY:

  • Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, to lead North Korea's official Olympic delegation and become first member of the ruling Kim dynasty to visit the South
  • Germany appears to have a government again after 136 days of uncertainty, with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) striking a deal with the Social Democratic party (SPD) to form a coalition
  • SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is a giant step for the private space industry, but it's likely not the answer for a human mission to Mars


North Korea's Olympic 'Ivanka'

Kim Jong-un has decided to make the Pyeongchang Olympics a family affair, dispatching his sisterKim Yo-jong to lead North Korea's official delegation.

The 29-year-old, who has recently become a bubbly, smiling presence in the Hermit Kingdom's otherwise dour propaganda videos, will attend Friday's Opening Ceremony, becoming the first member of the ruling Kim dynasty to visit the South.

Kim Yo-jong attends the opening ceremony for a newly constructed residential complex in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
On paper, she will be second in status to Kim Yong-nam, North Korea's 90 year-old president of the Presidium of the Parliament — more or less the head of state.

But the inclusion of the woman the South Korean media calls Kim Jong-un's "Ivanka" sends an unmistakable message. 

Appointed vice-director of the party's propaganda and agitation department in late 2014, Kim Yo-jong is believed to be in charge of managing her brother's public image at home.

Under her watch, the North Korean leader has revealed a softer, more cuddly side on visits to schools, amusement parks and the homes of carefully vetted "ordinary" citizens.

The North Korean delegation will attend Friday's opening ceremonies, and be at the Games for three days. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)
Earlier on, there were rumours that such experiments had caused friction and security concerns after people were allowed to touch the Supreme Leader, and a musician almost clocked him in the face with a guitar.

But this past fall, Kim Jong-un promoted her to the ruling politburo, making her its youngest member and signalling his trust and confidence in his little sister.

At a party conference in December, she was seated on the elevated dias just a few chairs away from her brother, a visible indication of her place in the inner circle.

Little is known about Kim Yo-jong, who is believed to have been born in 1989. She and Kim Jong-un have the same mother, Ko Yong-hui, a Japanese-born former dancer who was the late dictator Kim Jong-il's fourth and final companion.

That union produced one other child,Kim Jong-chol, an elder son who has no known role in the North Korean government. He was last seen at an Eric Clapton concert in London in 2015.

A man points at a computer screen with footage said to show Kim Jong-Chol entering an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore on Feb.14, 2011. (Park Ji-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)
Kim Yo-jong attended the same Swiss boarding school as her brother in the 1990s and early 2000s, living in a private residence under the watchful eyes of a large entourage of North Korean bodyguards, support staff and even musicians.

Later, she returned to Pyongyang to study computer science at Kim Il-sung University, named after her grandfather, the founder of the Kim dynasty.

Kim Yo-jong is said to be married to Choe Song, a senior military official and the son of the Workers' Party vice-chairman, and to have one child.

She was pictured mourning alongside her brother after their father's 2011 death, but the first mention of her in the official North Korean press didn't come until 2014.

Now, however, she is a fixture on nightly newscasts, and was on hand for the send-off of the country's cultural contribution to the Olympics — the Samjyo'n Orchestra — earlier this week.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet with North Korea's delegation during its visit to the Winter Games. (South Korea Presidential Blue House/Yonhap via AP)
When Kim Jong-un disappeared from public view due to ill health in 2014, there were rumours Kim Yo-jong took the country's helm. Whether that was true or not, the Americans consider her to be important enough that they added her to the U.S. Treasury's sanctions blacklist early last year.

The North Korean delegation will be at the Games for three days, and members are scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. There is already speculation that Kim Yo-jong has been tasked with carrying a special message.

But regardless, she will be given every honour and diplomatic courtesy. As the Supreme Leader's closest relative, her words and actions will carry weight.

Although perhaps only for the short term. Members of the ruling Kim family aren't known for their longevity.


Programming note

Rosemary Barton hosts The National from Pyeongchang, South Korea, tonight at 10 p.m./10:30 NT and tomorrow at 11 p.m./11:30 NT on CBC Television.

Beginning Friday, The National will preempted by the CBC's coverage of the Olympic Winter Games on the main network. You can always watch The National on CBC News Network and online on CBCNews.ca, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter at its regular broadcast times.


Merkel secures coalition

Germanyappears to have a government again.

After 136 days of uncertainty, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has struck a deal with the Social Democratic party (SPD), and the smaller Christian Social Union, to form a coalition.

The compromise, which came this morning after a marathon 24-hour bargaining session, was announced in non-traditional fashion — via a WhatsApp message to SPD members. The picture of their smiling negotiating team was accompanied by the caption, "Tired. But satisfied."

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, centre, has formed a coalition government with Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Horst Seehofer, left, and Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
A first round of negotiations last fall with the Green Party and conservative Free Democrats failed to find common ground.

At times it seemed that a deal with the SPD might also be out of reach.

In order to secure a fourth term as chancellor, Merkel has made some significant compromises.

For instance, the number of immigrants allowed to enter Germany on family reunification grounds will now be capped at 1,000 a month.

Merkel, seen here arriving for coalition talks on Tuesday, made a number of major concessions in negotiating the deal. (Gregor Fischer/dpa via Associated Press)
Rules around temporary contracts for workers will be tightened. As will controls over arms exports, which could see Saudi Arabia frozen out.

But perhaps most significantly, the SPD has extracted what it calls "an end to the austerity mandate" across the European Union. That comes with a promise of "fair taxation" for giant multinationals like Google and Apple, and to start spending a projected 46 billion euros ($71 billion Cdn) surplus over the next four years.

The junior coalition partner will also gain control of several key ministries, including finance and labour, with SPD leader Martin Schulz reportedly becoming the new foreign minister.  

Social Democratic party chairman Martin Schulz reportedly becomes Germany's new foreign minister under the coalition deal. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via Associated Press)
It's a remarkable turnaround for a party that gained just 20 per cent of the vote in last September's elections — the SPD's worst showing since the end of Second World War.

But Merkel had few choices, with her own CDU winning the most seats but falling well short of a majority, with 33 per cent of the vote.

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, which tapped into a widespread anti-immigrant sentiment to win 13 per cent of the vote, will now become Germany's official opposition.


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Mission to Mars

The maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday was undeniably impressive, even if its centre core failed to make it back to Earth intact.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off on its maiden launch from historic pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Tuesday. (Thom Baur/Reuters)
But for all of Elon Musk's refinements — like the (mostly) self-landing, reusable booster rockets — the underlying technology remains old school.

The 70-metre tall Heavy is really three Falcon 9 rockets working in tandem, harnessing 27 engines to lift large payloads. While it currently ranks as the world's most powerful launch system, it doesn't come close to the rockets used for the Apollo moon launches.

Two of the Falcon Heavy's boosters land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after the launch on Tuesday. The central booster was to land on a barge, but crashed into the ocean due to a technical problem. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The even more massive, 110-metre-high Saturn V used in the Apollo missions was able to put 140,000 kilograms of payload into a low-Earth orbit, and propel 48,600 kg all the way to the moon.

The Heavy, in comparison, can only lift 63,800 kilogramsinto near space, and just 16,000 kg to lunar orbit.

Where Musk has everyone beat is the price.

Falcon Heavy uses 27 engines working in tandem; launch slated for February 0:56
SpaceX estimates that a typical Falcon Heavy launch will cost $90 million, versus $300 million to $500 million for the comparable Delta IV Heavy made by the United Launch Alliance, or $1 billion-plus if one were to resurrect the Saturn V.

But even if Space X's Heavy has the power to get astronauts into deep space, it doesn't have the necessary speed.

A Saturn V rocket arrives to go on display at the Infinity Science Center in Pearlington, Miss., in June 2016. The enormous scale of the rocket can be seen in comparison to a worker walking in the foreground. (The Associated Press)
A trip to Mars powered by conventional rockets will take around eight months.

That's not just a problem in terms of confining astronauts to a cramped capsule for more than 240 days, and providing food and water. It would be a real danger when it comes to exposure to solar radiation and cosmic rays.

That's why NASA has set a goal of cutting the current travel time in half.

Research dollars have been directed to possible alternatives to solid fuel rockets, like solar-electric or nuclear-powered engines.

The propulsion model that seems most promising is plasma rockets — creating thrust from superheated bubbles of gas, contained by magnetic fields.

Diego Fonseca, an aerospace engineer at Ad Astra Rocket Co., works on a plasma engine project in this June 2007 photo. The powerful technology is still in development, but is touted as a potential system to get humans to Mars. (Mayyela Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Ad Astra Rocket Co., a private Houston firm run by former Space Shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, has been testing its version of a plasma rocket for several years now. But the technology remains a long way away from powering a spacecraft. Right now, the longest the company's VASIMR rocket can fire is five minutes at a time, due to the intense heat that overwhelms the cooling systems in the testing chamber.

And the hard truth is that in the absence of a new, government-driven space race, progress will be painfully slow.

Just look at Musk's Falcon Heavy, which took 13 years to develop.

The Saturn V went from the drawing board to space in just seven.


Quote of the moment

"The truth will come out."

- Patrick Brown, the former leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, returns to social media to reiterate that allegations of sexual misconduct against him are "false," and thank his supporters.

Patrick Brown speaks at a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Jan. 24, a few hours before stepping down as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

What The National is reading

  • Acceptance rate for asylum seekers in Canada at a 27-year high (CBC)
  • Trump establishes national vetting centre to screen immigrants (Fox News)
  • Outback mystery: what happens when one of a town's 10 residents disappears? (Guardian)
  • Canadian ice makers make Pyeongchang venues cool (CBC)
  • Unlicensed doctor with a dirty needle infects dozens with HIV in India (Washington Post)
  • Meet Cheddar man, the face of a prehistoric Brit (BBC)
  • Police pull over two hot air balloons (CNN)

Today in history

Feb. 7, 1960: Toronto's 'Crisis on Wheels'

Suburban sprawl and "the ungainly mass of humanity" has Toronto drivers fuming as they sit stuck in traffic. Meanwhile the city's transit projects proceed at a similar glacial pace with "no feasible plan for financing." And if all that doesn't seem familiar enough, the answer is "subways, subways, subways."

A Special Report exploring important Toronto transit issues. 29:26

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.