The Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games is handing out special “Olympic edition” Galaxy Note8 smartphones to competitors this year, but athletes from North Korea and Iran won’t receive them thanks to United Nations sanctions on both countries, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday.
Samsung, one of the game’s sponsors, is handing out roughly 4000 of the phones to athletes. But the relatively high price of the smartphones (about ₩1,000,000 in South Korea, or $1175) means handing them out to the 22 North Korean or four Iranian athletes competing this year or other officials accompanying them could potentially violate prohibitions on trading in luxury goods with either country, per the AFP.
As the New York Times noted, it’s possible the smartphones could be considered “dual use” devices with military applications. Other disputes over sanctions have included whether or not South Korea could legally refuel a North Korean ferry transporting the athletes, and how to share Olympics-grade sporting equipment and uniforms with the 12 North Korean members of the joint Korean women’s hockey team.
Of course, the North Korean team is continually accompanied by government minders who constantly keep track of what the competitors are doing – the country’s brutal government keeps eyes on the athletes at all times to prevent them from getting too cosy with foreigners or causing a diplomatic incident. So it’s hardly a surprise that one compromise measure the Times reported had been under consideration, simply letting the North Korean athletes use the phones during their time in Pyeongchang, was a non-starter.
As The Verge noted, Samsung has donated phones to Olympic competitors and officials since 1997, though North Korean authorities have confiscated the devices in the past citing laws banning GPS devices and uncensored internet access.
On the Iranian side, it’s unclear whether a compromise solution could be reached since their athletes presumably face less restrictions (Iran is an autocratic theocracy, though unlike totalitarian North Korea it has a utilitarian rather than blanket approach to internet censorship).
Though South Korea is using the opportunity of a North Korean delegation to the Olympics as a chance to warm relations, the US dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to promise even tougher sanctions on the North over its nuclear program. Tensions over the possibility of a nuclear war have grown in recent years as the North’s scientists and engineers have successfully tested larger nuclear bombs and long-range missiles. While Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un may be bluffing about his willingness to spark such a conflict, the White House under Donald Trump has issued numerous threats of annihilation.