Wednesday, January 17News That Matters

North Korea Olympics participation poses logistical challenges

North Korea’s offer to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea has lowered tensions and laid a tentative foundation for a detente on the divided peninsula.

But it has also raised a problem: how will the south accommodate, transport and monitor a delegation of Pyongyang’s most loyal supporters, numbering as many as 500?

Amid the brightening outlook for north-south relations — the two nations on Tuesday held their first face-to-face talks in more than two years — there are tricky logistical arrangements to pin down, with Seoul having to be careful not to violate international sanctions on Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“I’m worried that this was decided so suddenly with little time for preparation in terms of accommodation and security,” said Ryu Se-yeoung, head of Allami Korea, the security group hired by Olympics sponsors.

“Given North Korea’s peculiarity . . . you cannot treat the delegation the same way as others. You need separate accommodation facilities for them and I wonder how we can accommodate so many North Koreans in one place.”

He also noted the issue of finding security to protect the delegation of supporters, who are potentially at risk from South Korean fringe groups.

Lee Nak-yon, South Korea’s prime minister, has said as many as 500 North Koreans could attend the games that begin next month in Pyeongchang. The team will be composed of athletes, officials and even a celebrated cheerleading squad, although analysts in Seoul suspect the size of the group implied a large number of minders to prevent defections.

Two years ago Jong Yol-ri, an 18-year-old maths prodigy, defected while attending an Olympiad in Hong Kong. “If many people come, they’ll watch each other and have them be responsible for each other,” said a North Korean defector.

The possibility of Pyongyang’s participation has helped to boost Olympic ticket sales thanks to a feelgood factor and easing concerns about possible provocations. Some 65 per cent of seats have already been sold, up from just 30 per cent two months ago.

Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for the games, while sports officials are mulling giving wildcard spots to other athletes from the impoverished nation.

Yet how the team travels to Pyeongchang has yet to be agreed. The land route across the demilitarised zone would require detailed military planning, while air and sea routes are off-limits due to international sanctions.

The possibility of Pyongyang’s participation has helped boost Olympic ticket sales © Reuters

Under the current regime, ships departing North Korea cannot drop anchor in South Korea, while the national carrier Air Koryo would be forbidden from landing in Seoul.

This could complicate a proposal by Choi Moon-soon, governor of the province where the Olympics will be held, to send a cruise ship to collect the North Korean delegation and then accommodate them offshore throughout the games.

There is also the issue of what assistance can be offered to the North Koreans.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged financial support to help athletes from the north attend the games. He believes the event can promote peace in a region rattled by tensions over the north’s testing of ballistic missiles and the warlike rhetoric of the US.

But his administration must be scrupulous in what they offer: athletics products from US manufacturers, such as Nike, would likely violate sanctions. 

“The government might have anticipated the north’s participation in the Olympics last year, but not with this size,” said Park Jin-kyung, a professor of sports at Catholic Kwandong University. “They may find it difficult to . . . meet the north’s demands.”

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

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