Sports

No Samsung phones, Nike kit for N. Koreans at Winter Olympics?

South Korea is not sure if North Korean athletes will be eligible for the perks because of UN Security Council sanctions

All of the almost 3,000 athletes competing at the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are set to get perks, including the latest US$1,100 (S$1,445) Samsung smartphones, top-of-the-range new equipment to take home and sleek Nike uniforms.

All except perhaps the 22 athletes from North Korea.

Tough international sanctions, including travel restrictions and a ban on the sale of luxury goods and sports gear have complicated South Korean Olympic organisers’ efforts to provide their northern neighbours with the same benefits available to other Olympians.

For months, South Korean President Moon Jae In has sought North Korea’s participation in the hopes it will ease tensions between the still officially warring nations and prevent the kind of violent incidents which have plagued previous major events hosted by the South.

Officials have rolled out the red carpet and are keen to make sure the visits go off without a hitch.

North Korean female ice hockey players and their South Korean teammates, who will compete as one nation in the Games for the first time, have been living and training together this week, even sharing a birthday cake.

Other members of the North Korean delegation, such as the cheer squad, will be housed in luxury hotels.

Overshadowing those efforts, however, are a host of US and UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang over its efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.

At almost every turn, South Korea has had to go great lengths to make sure its hospitalities don’t run afoul of sanctions or other laws, according to several South Korean officials.

Just raising the North Korean flag alongside other national banners in the Olympic Villages required an exemption from South Korean laws banning praise of the North Korea regime, a Pyeongchang organising committee official told Reuters.

The officials all declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the matter.

NO PERKS?

Samsung Electronics, an official sponsor of the Winter Games, is offering 4,000 Galaxy Note 8 smartphones specially designed for the Olympics to “all” of the participating athletes.

The International Olympic Committee will distribute them, a Samsung Electronics spokesman told Reuters.

But South Korea is not sure if North Korean athletes will be eligible for the treats because of UN Security Council sanctions, an Olympics organiser told Reuters.

The official declined to elaborate, but experts say providing the US$1,100 Samsung phone could violate UN sanctions that ban the sale of luxury items and electronics with a potential “dual” commercial and military use.

Meanwhile, the joint women’s hockey team will wear uniforms made by a Finnish company instead of official sponsor Nike, because of concerns about US sanctions, another South Korean government official told Reuters.

Unilateral US sanctions go far beyond the UN sanctions, effectively banning US companies and individuals from trading with North Korea.

“We are trying to figure out ways to live up to the sanctions,” the official said.

Nike did not immediately respond to request for comments.

North Korean athletes will also have to return Finnish hockey sticks, skates and other equipment “rented” for them when they leave South Korea, the official said.

FIVE-STAR HOTEL

The North Korean Olympians are staying at the athletes’ village in Gangneung with athletes from other countries. The Olympics organising committee was unable to say whether they are being given any special treatment, such as beefed-up protection.

North Korea’s 230-member cheering squad is expected to stay at Inje Speedium, according to a unification ministry official, a four-star hotel surrounded by forest. Rooms there cost 242,000 won (S$293) to 715,000 won per night.

Its taekwondo performance team will stay at the five-star Grand Walkerhill in Seoul, which overlooks the Han River and previously hosted American stars such as Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton.

The spending is not unprecedented. When North Koreans visited the South for the Asian Games in 2002, the Seoul government spent 1.3 billion won hosting them.

But now, even paying for routine things such as medical treatment or providing souvenirs can run into problems, said Yoo Ho Yeol, a professor at Korea University in Seoul.

“Benefits provided to North Korean delegation, which were in the past were not subject to sanctions, can now become a controversy, since sanctions have become much more comprehensive in recent years,” he said. – REUTERS

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