SEOUL, South Korea — To give, or not to give?
That question has been tormenting South Korean officials, who are struggling to be good Olympic hosts for the North Korean delegation without violating the international sanctions punishing the North for its nuclear weapons program.
The issue arose on Wednesday, after a North Korean ferry brought musicians, dancers and singers to the South for performances during the Winter Olympics, which open on Friday in the town of Pyeongchang.
The North only announced this week that it would be sending the group by ferry rather than, as expected, over land, and the South had already made one accommodating move, by granting an exception to its ban on North Korean ships in its waters.
Then North Korean officials said the ship, called the Mangyongbong-92, was low on fuel, and asked the South to refuel it.
South Korean conservatives were furious. They said the request summed up exactly what the North was hoping to achieve by participating in the Games: weakening South Korea’s resolve to stick with its American allies and strictly enforce the sanctions, which include a curb on fuel exports.
As of Wednesday evening, the South had not decided whether to supply the fuel. “We will closely discuss with the United States and other related nations the matter of providing convenience to the Mangyongbong ferry so that no problem regarding sanctions would occur,” said Baik Tae-hyun, a spokesman for the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of relations with the North.
Since last month, when North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes and hundreds of supporters to the Olympics, sanctions questions have repeatedly vexed organizers in the South.
Samsung, the South Korean electronics company that is one of the Olympic sponsors, donated 4,000 Galaxy Note 8 phones for athletes and officials at the Games. It had been a welcome and uncontroversial perk — until North Korea decided to come.
Then the question arose: Would the $1,100 smartphones violate the United Nations ban on exporting luxury goods to the North? What’s more, could they be defined as one of the “dual use” goods that are banned because they could potentially serve military purposes?
Some Olympic officials suggested that the North Koreans could use the phones while in Pyeongchang, and return them before going home.
But in the end, it seemed a moot point: The athletes’ minders from the North Korean government were unlikely to let them use phones with unfettered, high-speed access to the internet, which would be strictly forbidden in their isolated home country. South Korean officials said the athletes were unlikely to receive the phones.
The sanctions problem even extends to hockey sticks. Last year, when North Korea’s ice hockey team brought battered wooden sticks to an international tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, organizers presented them with high-tech carbon fiber equipment. But the North Koreans had to give it back before going home, because the luxury goods ban specifically includes “recreational sports equipment.”
The same solution will be applied in Pyeongchang, where the two Koreas are to field a joint women’s hockey team. The International Ice Hockey Federation will loan new Finnish sticks to the North Korean players, to be returned after the Games.
What’s more, the hockey team will wear a uniform made by a Finnish company — not by Nike, another Olympic sponsor — for fear of violating United States sanctions. (It has also been reported that the North Koreans did not want to wear American-made uniforms.)
South Korean officials have taken pains to consult with their American allies as they pursue their sports détente with the North.
Last week, South Korea sought and was granted an exception from Washington after an Asiana Airlines charter plane took South Korean players to North Korea for joint training, and returned to the South with North Korean Olympic athletes. Normally, planes are barred from landing in the United States for six months after a visit to North Korea. (Asiana used an Airbus jet, not an American Boeing, for the trip.)
The joint ski training was held at North Korea’s Masik Pass resort, a choice that drew heated criticism from South Korean conservatives. The resort is one of the signature projects of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who has ostentatiously supplied it with snowmobiles and other pieces of sports equipment considered luxuries in the impoverished North.
The combination of the ever-tightening international sanctions and the North’s usual unpredictability has been a particular source of stress for South Korean officials.
North Korea did not reveal until the last minute who would be included in its government delegation to the Olympics, leading to worries that it might test South Korea by trying to send one of the top officials blacklisted by Washington. But those fears proved unfounded when the names were announced on Wednesday: The only surprise was Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong.
South Korean officials called for patience, saying that gestures of good will would be necessary to ensure a successful Games.
On Tuesday, as the Mangyongbong pulled into Mukho Port in South Korea, people waved signs welcoming its arrival. But conservative protesters tore and burned North Korean flags and shouted, “Go back!”