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Winter Olympics 2018: Who is winning the propaganda battle?

Mr Pence (L) and North Koreans Kim Yong-nam (C) and Kim Yo-jong (C) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Pence (L) and North Koreans Kim Yong-nam (C) and Kim Yo-jong (C) studiously ignored each other at the opening ceremony

Two unusual guests marked the beginning of the Winter Olympics in South Korea - North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister and the father of a US student who died after being jailed in North Korea.

Kim Yo-jong and Fred Warmbier are the faces of their respective countries' propaganda efforts amid tension over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

On a day that was supposed to be about sport, their presence was one of many diplomatic subtexts.

Pence skips dinner

US and North Korean officials have already had to engage in some delicate diplomatic manoeuvres to avoid each other, according to reports.

Vice-President Mike Pence attended a reception hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at which North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam was also present.

The pair briefly came into contact but tried to avoid facing one another, Yonhap reported. They did not shake hands.

They were also due to sit at the same table along with Mr Moon for dinner - but Mr Pence left before the meal was served

"There are some who would not want to be in the same room together if it wasn't for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But what is more important than anything is that we are together," said Mr Moon.

Yonhap said the early departure "apparently reflected US suspicions toward the recent rapprochement between the two Koreas".

Family diplomacy

Kim Jong-un seized the diplomatic initiative by sending his sister Kim Yo-jong to attend the Games - the first visit by an immediate member of the ruling Kim family since the 1950-1953 Korean war.

Mr Moon and Ms Kim shook hands at the opening ceremony.

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Media captionWhat we've seen of Kim Yo-jong from North Korean media

Ms Kim, who is said to be very close to her brother, was promoted to the North's powerful politburo last year. She is on a US sanctions list over alleged links to human rights abuses.

There is speculation that she might be bringing a personal message from Mr Kim to Mr Moon, the BBC's South Korea Correspondent Laura Bicker says.

Who cheered for whom?

Ms Kim and Kim Yong-nam sat in the row behind Mr Pence at the opening ceremony, but Mr Pence's office said there had been no interaction between him and the North Koreans.

Mr Pence stood up and cheered just once when the US team walked in to the stadium to the sound of the hit Gangnam Style by South Korean rapper Psy and left before the end, reports said.

Ms Kim meanwhile stood and cheered for the joint North and South Korean team.

Bereaved father

US Vice-President Pence has brought with him as a guest the father of a US student who died after being released from a North Korean jail, where he had been held after allegedly trying to steal a propaganda sign during a tour to the country.

Mr Pence has said he wants Fred Warmbier to remind the world of North Korea's human rights abuses.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Pence (L) has been meeting Fred Warmbier (C), whose son Otto died after being released from jail in North Korea, and defector Ji Seong-ho (R)

Mr Warmbier's son Otto returned to the US in a coma in June 2017 and died shortly afterwards. The Warmbiers have accused North Korea of torturing their son, but North Korea said he was suffering from botulism.

Mr Pence tweeted a picture of the meeting.

'North Korea got what it wanted'

By Jung Woo Lee, sports diplomacy expert

North Korean leader Kim Jung-un uses sport as a propaganda device more actively than his father and grandfather.

Originally only two of their athletes qualified for the competition on sporting merit alone - and skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik were set to sit out the Games after missing the registration deadline. But extra spaces were given to North Korean skiers in negotiations and the delegation is now its largest ever.

These athletes are key to the North's propaganda offensive. Time and time again they pour adulation on their Dear Leader when they win at international events. State media relay these emotive moments to the people back home, who see their country winning on the international stage.

'Hope on a plate'

Mr Pence's early exit from Mr Moon's reception meant he missed dessert - a chocolate pudding in the shape of the Korean peninsula with dark chocolate barbed wire across it that was supposed to dissolve when melted white chocolate was poured on it.

Photos of the dessert had been leaked days earlier - one Twitter user said it "looked like the whole Korean peninsula getting nuked".

Stepping stone?

North Korea's last-minute entry to the Games and the agreement it secured from the South to march under a joint Korean flag and field a joint women's ice hockey team have led to allegations by some South Koreans that Mr Kim is hijacking the event.

Some conservatives and younger South Koreans were angered that the North was apparently stealing the spotlight, Reuters reported.

However, participation follows the first formal talks in nearly two years and a South Korean spokesman said the government believed the Games would be a "stepping stone towards peace".

What did the North's military parade mean?

North Korea brought forward an annual military parade - usually held in April - to Thursday, the day before the opening ceremony.

It had appeared to be a setback to the rapprochement with the South over the Games.

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Media captionKim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju were hailed at the parade

But observers said the parade was smaller than usual and state TV only aired delayed footage of the event.

Commentators in the South said avoiding live TV coverage may have been an attempt to keep the parade low key.

The North also did not provide live coverage of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, instead broadcasting patriotic songs and slogans celebrating industry and the armed forces.

Soft power attempts

North Korea's attempts at cultural exchange have had mixed success.

In January the North abruptly cancelled a joint cultural event that was to have been held at Mount Kumgang in the North last week.

A telegram from the North reportedly blamed "biased" and "insulting" media coverage in the South. South Korea said the decision was "regrettable".

However, on Thursday a 137-member North Korean orchestra played songs from both the North and the South in the coastal city of Gangneung - the first such concert since 2000.

North Korean cheerleaders have also travelled to the South and chanted "We are one" shortly before the opening ceremony, Yonhap reported.

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