To give or not Samsung phone to North Korean Olympians

Youkyung Lee - Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Here is an Olympian question that Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organizer is wrestling with: to give or not to give the Samsung Galaxy phone to the 22 North Korean athletes.

Olympic Partner Samsung Electronics has donated some 4,000 Galaxy Note 8 phones for athletes and officials at the International Olympic Committee so that they can document every moment and share their memories with the world.

But the Winter Olympic Games organizer is in limbo whether giving the device that costs at least $1,000 to North Koreans would violate global sanctions designed to punish their government's nuclear ambitions. It's also unclear if the phones would work on networks inside North Korea.

The Galaxy Note 8 Olympic Games phone distributed to athletes is a limited edition not for sale, but Samsung's Note series are some of the most expensive available in the market. The United Nations sanctions ban supplying or transferring luxury items to North Korea or to North Korean nationals.

The International Olympic Committee has advised the organizer that North Korean athletes can use the phone during the Olympics that open Friday but must return them before their departure.

Even after the IOC's response, the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee is still unsure what to do.

"Somebody should make a clear call but there is no one who can," said Sung Baik-yoo, the committee's spokesman. "So we have not given the phone (to North Koreans) and we cannot give the phone until we confirm this is not a violation of the UN sanctions."

The committee should also take into consideration that all athletes are to be treated equally regardless of their nationality, Sung said.

Other Olympians receive the Samsung phone upon their arrival at the Olympic Village.

The phone is one of the sticking issues that South Korea is dealing with as it conducts a careful dance of welcoming North Koreans for the Olympics to send a message of peace while trying to avoid causing any frictions with its allies worried about the North's nuclear weapons.

In order to accommodate North Korean artists arriving by sea, South Korea's government had waived its own sanctions imposed against Pyongyang that bans entrance of North Korean vessels to the South. While South Korea says the move was inevitable to ensure the successful hosting of the Winter Olympics, some critics say Seoul is sending the wrong message to North Korea and also the international community, which has been stepping up financial and maritime sanctions against the North in recent months.

On Wednesday, Seoul's Unification Ministry said it is considering North Korea's request to provide fuel to the ferry that transported more than 100 artists for performances at the Olympics. Unification Ministry's spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said the government will discuss with the United States and other countries so it would raise no problem with sanctions.

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