North Korean Olympic Officials Refuse to Give Athletes Complimentary Smartphones

A worker walks past the Rio Olympics sign on the pitch at the Olympic hockey center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 5, 2016.

UPDATED at 4 P.M. EST on 2016-08-10

North Korea’s Olympic Committee has refused to give complimentary smartphones provided by South Korea’s Samsung to the country’s 31 athletes competing in the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, RFA has learned.

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., an official sponsor of the Olympics, provided 12,500 Galaxy 7s smartphones to those participating in the Games, including nearly 11,200 athletes from 206 nations and two independent teams, to carry during the opening ceremony on Aug. 5.

But officials from North Korea’s Olympic Committee did not provide the phones to the country’s athletes to carry as they entered Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony, a source familiar with the athlete’s village told RFA’s Korean Service.

During an International Olympic Committee (IOC) press conference in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, an IOC spokesperson was asked where the phones that were intended for the North Korean athletes were.

After checking with people at Samsung, the spokesperson later told RFA’s Korean Service that a North Korean team manager had gone to the electronics giant’s office and had taken all the phones that were provided for his athletes.

The IOC press official speculated that the manager took the phones out of concern that the North Korean athletes would gain access to the Samsung exhibition where the company displayed South Korean electronics.

A public relations representative from Samsung who is working at the Olympics confirmed that a North Korean team manager took the smartphones.

He said representatives from large teams usually come to the office to collect products that sponsors have provide for the athletes, but athletes from small teams usually stop by to pick up the items themselves.

Manager identified

The Rio Olympic Committee said via email that Yoon Sungbum, a top manager for the North Korean team, took the 31 smartphones for the athletes, but could not confirm whether he gave them to the intended recipients.

When asked if she had received a smartphone, North Korean athlete Kim Song I shook her head without a word as she left the stadium on Tuesday after beating a Singaporean player in the women’s table tennis quarterfinals.

Some South Korean athletes from the country’s national team who have competed against North Korean athletes in the past said that North Korean managers and coaches often confiscate gifts given to their athletes during international competitions.

Smartphones would also raise the suspicions of a North Korean government that takes great pains to control citizens’ contact with the outside world.

Samsung has been providing the latest versions of its Galaxy smartphones to athletes and members of the International Olympic Committee since the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Tenth Summer Games

The Rio Games mark North Korea’s tenth appearance at the Olympics since 1972. Its athletes, however, did not attend the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles as part of a boycott led by the former Soviet Union and they skipped the 1988 Summer Games hosted by rival Seoul, South Korea.

At this year’s Summer Games, North Korean athletes are competing in archery, diving, gymnastics, judo, shooting, table tennis, track and field, weightlifting and wrestling.

On Sunday, Om Yun Chol won the country’s only medal so far in the men’s 56-kilogram (123-pound) event in weightlifting.

During a practice session on Aug. 4 before competition began, Olympic gymnasts Lee Eun Ju of South Korea and Hong Un Jong of North Korea posed together for a selfie, earning high marks for their diplomacy and sportsmanship despite poor relations between their two countries.

North Korea has declared South Korea its sworn enemy ever since the Korean War (1950-3) divided the Korean peninsula.

The North and the South remain technically at war because the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

Reported by Kyu Sang Lee from the Rio Olympics for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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