North Korea’s athletes won’t be getting a free Samsung Galaxy Note 8 at the Winter Olympics
Since 1997, Samsung has made special editions of its mobile phones to celebrate the Olympic games, distributed free of charge to competing athletes, and this year’s model is a rather swish-looking Galaxy Note 8. But despite North and South Korea marching under the same flag at the Winter Olympics, only one set of athletes will walk away with a shiny new smartphone.
The problem, officially, is sanctions. The Note 8 costs 1,000,000 won in South Korea (or roughly £663) – and that makes it tips it into the luxury good category, something which is banned under UN sanctions to both North Korea and Iran.
But it’s North Korea where things get especially tricky – and indeed the sanctions might just prevent a difficult conversation at the border when the athletes return home after the games. Not only does the Note 8 prominently display the logo of South Korea’s biggest company on the handset, but it also flouts North Korean laws by having built-in GPS and access to the uncensored internet.
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Internet access in North Korea is extremely limited to regular citizens, with a just tightly controlled handful of state-run websites accessible. Indeed, at one point it was estimated that there were fewer official websites than were set up for Grand Theft Auto V – just 28 in all. For that reason, human-rights activists have made a virtue out of smuggling USB sticks filled with forbidden content across the South Korean border.
Of course, every dictatorship in history has had plenty of double standards between the rulers and the ruled, and North Korea is no exception. Last year, a report from Recorded Future and Team Cymru found that a small selection of North Korea’s citizens were using their unfettered access in much the same way we do in the West: Facebook, Instagram, streaming music and online gaming – with a special fondness for World of Tanks.
Alas, that doesn’t seem to extend to the country’s athletic heroes. According to a New York Times report, Olympic officials were considering letting the North Korean athletes borrow their special-edition phones until home time, but even that weak gesture was quashed by the realities of their situation. “In the end, it seemed a moot point,” the report reads. “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.”
Unless they finish on the winner’s podium, the North Korean athletes will likely be leaving South Korea empty-handed.