The Olympic Villages are legendary for their privacy — and their perks, and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea are not expected to be any different for almost all of the 3,000 competing athletes. They will go home with the latest Samsung smartphones, pricey new sportswear and Nike uniforms, among other branded gifts. All athletes, except the 22 from North Korea, who are competing with the South Koreans as one nation for the first time ever, that is.
“Tough international sanctions including travel restrictions and a ban on the sale of luxury goods and sports gear have complicated South Korean Olympic organizers’ efforts to provide their northern neighbors with the same benefits available to other Olympians,” according to Reuters.
UN, U.S. Sanctions
The UN Security Council has, since 2006, observed a wide range of sanctions against North Korea, including banning all member states – South Korea included – from engaging in the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to North Korea of luxury goods, including “jewelry and precious stones, yachts, luxury cars, luxury watches, and tableware,” etc. In the 12 years since, additional sanctions have been implemented, some as recently as last year after North Korea began pursuing nuclear and ballistic missile programs in defiance of UN resolutions.
In addition to UN sanctions, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have respectively enacted bilateral sanctions on North Korea, which are coming into play ahead of the Olympics that begin on February 9.
The U.S., for instance, has, since September 2017, had an executive order in effect allowing the federal government to cut from its financial system and/or freeze assets of any companies, businesses, organizations and individuals trading in goods, services or technology with North Korea. This could potentially be an issue in connection with the distribution of Portland, Oregon-based Nike’s products to Olympians.
As such, the joint North Korean, South Korean women’s ice hockey team – with its 23 South Korean players and 12 North Korean players – will wear uniforms made by Tackla, a Finnish company, instead of those of the Games’ official sponsor Nike, which manufactured official Olympic jerseys for the seven other ice hockey teams participating in the Games.
S. Korean Laws, N. Korean Propaganda
South Korean laws have, of course, been tested at length ahead of the games. As noted by Reuters, “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.”
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. The flight, according to Reuters, “took South Korean athletes for training in a ski resort in the North on Wednesday,” certainly a triumph for image-obsessed Kim Jong-Un, who got to show off the Masikryong Ski Resort, the $35 million luxury ski resort that he had built in 2013.
Considering that skiing apparel and gear costs several months’ worth of wages for even the most affluent North Korean citizens, a nation where roughly forty percent of the population – or about 24 million people – lives below the poverty line, the resort itself is routinely empty. “Seeing South Koreans practice at a place he built is a propaganda coup for Kim,” Lee Su-seok, a North Korea analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy told Bloomberg.
North Korea is seeking to capitalize on South Korea’s desire for a peaceful Winter Games as international sanctions over its nuclear arms program further squeeze its finances. “The thaw over the Olympics brings the countries closer to dialogue on restoring lucrative cross-border tours that once brought Kim’s regime millions of dollars a year,” according to Bloomberg, which would be yet another major win for Jong-Un.
Back in the South, which currently bans tourists from traveling north, “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 organizing committee official told Reuters.”
As for the Olympic gifts, South Korea officials are “not sure” if North Korean athletes will be eligible due to UN Security Council sanctions, an Olympics organizer told Reuters. “Experts say providing the $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.”