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North Korean female ice hockey player Choe Un Gyong (C) cutting a cake while her North and South Korean teammates celebrate her birthday on January 29, 2018 at South Korea's national training center in Jincheon. Photo: Korean Sport and Olympic Committee via AFP

North Korean Olympians barred from bringing home Samsung smartphones and Nike swag

South Korea
All athletes competing at the upcoming  Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are set to receive gifts including the latest US$1,100 (HK$8,600)  Samsung smartphones, Nike uniforms and top-of-the-line new equipment to take home.

All except 22 athletes from North Korea.

Tough international sanctions, 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 the other 3,000 Olympians.

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For months, South Korean President  Moon Jae-in sought North Korea’s participation in the hopes it will ease tensions between the still-warring nations. 

Officials have rolled out the red carpet and are keen to make sure the visits go off without a hitch and prevent violent incidents that have plagued previous major events hosted by the South.

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

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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 to great lengths to make sure its hospitality does not run afoul of sanctions or other laws, according to several South Korean officials.

The North Korean flag flies amongst flags from other nations at the Olympic Village in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympic. Photo: AP

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 said.

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.

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The  International Olympic Committee will distribute them, a Samsung Electronics spokesman said. But South Korea is not sure if North Korean athletes will be eligible for the treats because of UN Security Council sanctions, said an Olympics organiser.

The official declined to elaborate, but experts say giving out the 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 said.

Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Note 8 is displayed at its shop in Seoul, South Korea on January 8, 2018. The smartphone will be given to all winter Olympic atheletes, except for the North Korean Olympians. Photo: AP

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 said it would comply with US sanctions.

“The Korean women’s hockey team will not compete in Nike uniforms,” a company spokeswoman said. North Korean athletes will also have to return their Finnish hockey sticks, skates and other equipment the IIHF has “rented” for them when they leave South Korea, the official said.

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The federation was not immediately available for comments.

South Korea’s unification ministry said it had sought and received temporary permission from the United States to fly an airliner to North Korea this week.

Pictures of South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (second left) are seen on a sign during a rally in Seoul to denounce the United States' policy against North Korea and demand the peaceful Winter Olympics on January 16, 2018. Photo: AP

The flight took South Korean athletes for training in a ski resort in the North on Wednesday, and brought North Korean athletes to the South on Thursday.

Any aircraft or ship visiting North Korea is banned for 180 days from entering the United States. The exemption granted this week only applies to the latest flight, meaning US approval is needed any time North Korean officials visit during the Olympics by air plane or ferry.

A spokesman for the US State Department said Washington was in “close contact with the Republic of Korea on our unified response to North Korea.”

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A US Treasury official said the department evaluates applications “for certain prohibited transactions and activities, which can include those related to the upcoming Olympics”, without giving more detail.

For this week’s flight, an Airbus aircraft was used rather than one made by US Boeing due to stricter US sanctions, South Korean broadcaster Channel A reported. Asiana Airlines, who operated the plane, declined to comment.

North and South Korean women's ice hockey athletes during their training session in Jincheon National Training Centre in Jincheon, South Korea on January 28, 2018. Photo: Korean Sport & Olympic Committee/Yonhap via Reuters

To comply with South Korean military rules, the airliner had to fly some distance out to sea to avoid flying over the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone, the unification ministry said.

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 strengthened 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 (US$226) to 715,000 (US$657) 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.

A member of the North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics receives a security check in Gangneung, South Korea, on February 1, 2018. Photo: Kyodo

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 (US$1.2 million) 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.