Athletes from both Koreas today marched into the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics under a shared unification flag as host President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and the North’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, and leader Kim Jong Un’s influential younger sister overcame a plethora of obstacles to stand together in the VIP box at the main stadium.
The historical moment resulted from tense negotiations among the two Koreas, United States, and the United Nations in a remarkably short period of just a little over a month.
South Korea’s efforts to facilitate the North’s participation in the Olympic Games have been a tough one, given the sanctions at every turn. Indeed, they were not even sure North Korea’s high-level delegation would be able to attend until early this morning when a U.N. committee finally lifted sanctions against North Koreans temporarily.
The exemption directly applies to Choe Hwi, who has been slapped with restrictions on travel and an asset freeze since last June. Choe is identified on the U.N. sanctions list as "First Vice Director of the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department,” which controls all Democratic People's Republic of Korea media and is used by the government to control the public, according to Associated Press reports.
Sanctions also ban North Koreans from taking home luxury goods because importing such items into the North is strictly banned by the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee on North Korea. So North Koreans could not receive the Samsung cellphones distributed to all athletes and International Olympic Committee officials at the Olympics.
South Korea’s Pyeongchang Organizing Committee had sought an exemption for the phones, offering the Galaxy Note 8 phones to the North Koreans after an endorsement by the International Olympic Committee, but only if the phones were returned after the games. Galaxy Note 8 Samsung phones sell for about $1,000 and are among the most expensive mobile phones in the market.
But the North Korean delegation flatly refused the offer, saying they wouldn’t receive the phones with strings attached.
As for Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, she is blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department because of her position as vice director of the South’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.
Meanwhile, South Korean aircraft sent to Kalma Airport in the North 10 days ago to pick up North Korean athletes were also at risk because of U.S. sanctions banning vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from traveling to the United States within 180 days. A series of airliners, fearing sanctions, refused to charter flights.
The government was only able to secure a small Asiana Airlines-run Airbus, instead of a larger Boeing jet, that is used for domestic or short-distance flights. Seoul and Washington came to an agreement to exempt that flight just an hour before the scheduled Jan. 31 departure. The aircraft arrived the next day with a 32-member North Korean delegation on board.
Another bump in the road has been the nonchalant public reaction to the North’s participation in the games. The media frenzy over North’s participation is not set off warning bells on the ground as in the past. South Koreans, especially the younger generation, are no longer as much excited or welcoming the North with open arms.
Such sentiment was displayed when the government announced a 9,700-ton North Korean ship, Mangyongbong-92, would be allowed into South Korean waters to bring 114 members of an art troupe to will perform in Gangneung, South Korea, last Thursday and in Seoul this Sunday.
The North has even requested that Seoul provide fuel to the ferry needed to sail back to the North next week. Seoul is reportedly under negotiation with Washington to resolve the request.