With the 2018 Winter Olympics due to begin in South Korea, all eyes are on the North Korean delegation to the games. Yet the event has unexpectedly caused problems between the host country and another nation before it has even begun — as Iran summoned Seoul's envoy in Tehran on Thursday in a dispute over smartphones and sanctions.
The issue began with reports that Samsung is scheduled to hand out special “Olympic edition” Galaxy Note 8 phones to competing athletes this year, an ongoing tradition for the South Korean technology giant and longtime Olympics sponsor.
This week, however, Olympics organizers told news agencies that although 4,000 athletes would get the phones, two countries may not be able to receive the giveaways: North Korea and Iran. The problem? Sanctions. “North Korean and Iranian athletes will be excluded because of existing U.N. sanctions” against the two countries, a PyeongChang organizing committee spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse.
The United Nations' sanctions on North Korea specifically restrict imports of “luxury goods” into the country, and the Galaxy Note 8, at a base cost of almost $1,000, may qualify. It is also possible that the Olympic committee might consider the phones “dual use” goods that could serve both commercial and military use. Though nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016, a number of sanctions remain in place, and companies are often wary of doing business with the country in areas of ambiguity.
To North Korean athletes, the news that they would not be getting Samsung phones would not be a surprise. Radio Free Asia reported during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics that although the country's delegation was given phones, North Korea's Olympic committee had refused to distribute them to athletes. Although smartphone use has risen in the country, few North Koreans own a foreign-made device, and it is unclear whether Samsung phones would work on North Korean networks.
But in Iran, many people were shocked. Mobile phone use is widespread there, with estimates showing that a little over a third of the population owns a mobile phone. Samsung is one of the major foreign players in the Iranian smartphone market, advertising to consumers and operating stores there. A report released last month by an Iranian app company estimated that 51 percent of its users — about 17.8 million — had Samsung phones.
Many Iranians criticized Samsung's decision on social media, with some using the hashtag #BanSamsung and calling for the company to be blocked from operating in the country.
Iran's Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs called the move “an insult to our athletes, who are representatives of the great, civilized Iranian people, and our peace messengers” to the Olympics, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The South Korean ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. And, according to IRNA, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Samsung that if the decision was not reversed by Thursday afternoon, he would lead a boycott of the company in Iran and give up his personal Samsung phone.
Within hours, the decision on Samsung phones appeared to have been reversed.
“The IOC [International Olympic Committee] will provide mobile phones to all athletes of all countries participating at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. These phones contain essential logistical and competition information for the athletes,” an IOC spokesman told Reuters. Iranian athletes will be allowed to keep their phones, while North Koreans will be asked to return them after the games, the spokesman added.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap soon reported that the Iranian delegation had agreed to the decision. North Korea's Olympics team, however, refused.
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Correction: This article has been updated to correct a description of U.N. sanctions on Iran.