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NK sanctions a big hurdle in Pyongyang‘s participation at Olympics

South and North Korea have agreed to plans to collaborate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics next month, but challenges lie ahead in making the plans materialize.

South Korea is now tasked with finding ways to host the North Korean delegation -- which could comprise at least 400 athletes, officials, musicians, cheerleaders and journalists -- without violating United Nations Security Council sanctions against the North. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects Masikryong Ski Resort, North Korea, in 2013. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects Masikryong Ski Resort, North Korea, in 2013. (Yonhap)

International sanctions -- the most recent of which were adopted in December in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests -- outlaw “bulk cash” transferred to Pyongyang and blacklist some of its high-ranking officials.

Working-level officials from the two Koreas on Wednesday met to discuss details of the North’s participation in the Feb. 9-25 games in the South and agreed that “the South ensures the North’s delegation’s safety and convenience” according to a joint press statement.

But some key issues -- such as who will pay for accommodation and other costs for the North’s delegation -- have been not been finalized.

Also, concerns are rising over the possible violation of sanctions after the Koreas agreed to hold a joint cultural event at Kumgangsan in North Korea ahead of the Olympics and to conduct joint training for skiers at Masikryong Ski Resort on the North’s east coast.

“The daily fee for using the resort is $35 per person, and the hotel costs about $300 (per night). The facilities cannot be used without payment. If such large sums are paid, it is a clear violation of UN Security Council sanctions,” Kim Jung-bong, a former National Intelligence Service official, said in a radio interview Thursday.

Another stumbling block is the possibility of officials, blacklisted by the UN or Seoul’s unilateral sanctions, being included in the North’s high-level delegation.

There is speculation that Choe Ryong-hae, considered to be North Korea’s No. 2 man, will be included in the North’s delegation, but he is under South Korean unilateral sanctions for his apparent role in the country’s nuclear and missile provocations.

“We attempted to discuss it, but the North wanted to discuss it later, so we could not specifically talk about it,” the South’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-Sung said, referring to Pyongyang’s high-ranking officials’ participation in the Winter Games.

The Unification Ministry and Foreign Ministry dismissed such concerns.

“The government’s stance is clear and firm that it will not cause any controversy such as the violation of international sanctions against North Korea with regard to the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics,” Noh Kyu-duk, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said during a regular briefing Thursday.

As the two sides agreed during the meeting that the North’s delegation will travel by land, they avoided breaking the sanctions regime. Transporting the delegation by ship and by the North’s Koryo Air could have been a violation of unilateral sanctions adopted by South Korea and the US, respectively.

Another sticking point is that the two Koreas also must get an approval for the plan to field a South-North joint ice hockey team and the North’s figure skating team from the International Olympic Committee because Pyongyang has failed to qualify or missed registration deadlines.

But IOC chief Thomas Bach has hailed Pyongyang’s participation as a “great step forward in the Olympic spirit.”

“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” IOC said.

Officials from IOC and the Koreas will meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday to finalize the plans for the North’s participation in the Olympics.