South Koreans split on footing bill for North Korea's Olympic delegation

By Jennie Oh  |  Jan. 11, 2018 at 7:56 AM
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SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- South Koreans have mixed feelings about whether they should foot the bill for hundreds of North Koreans to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month.

This comes as the two Koreas arrange the logistics of the North's participation in the Games, following a high-level meeting earlier this week.

Yonhap reported Thursday that North Korean officials told the South during the talks that 20 athletes and officials would attend the sporting event.

However, the number of high-ranking officials, performers, reporters and a cheering squad that the North offered to send could easily add up to 400 to 500, the South Korean Prime Minister said Wednesday.

A poll from Realmeter shows some 24.5 percent of 505 South Koreans surveyed are "strongly in favor" of paying for the delegation's stay in the country, which would include accommodation and travel. Another 29.9 percent of respondents said they supported the move.

"It's true to the spirit of the Olympics. I think it's worth contributing what we can if we can afford to do so -- the way a host covers the expenses of their guests and offers them a place to stay. They are our compatriots, after all," Kwon Hyuck-ju, 55, an office worker from Daejon, told UPI.

"The benefits of having North Korean athletes here will outweigh the costs," said Park Soo-young, 43, a homemaker from Busan. "Lower tensions would encourage people to come to the games and also invest in local stocks."

But 41 percent of the respondents opposed, with half of them "strongly against" footing the bill.

More than half of the respondents between age 30 and 59 were willing to contribute, but those in their 20s showed more reluctance: 49.7 percent of that group were against the idea compared to the 45.7 percent backing the move.

The survey was conducted Friday nationwide through telephone, online and offline interviews. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

"I do want them to come and I believe in the unification of our countries but I don't think we should pay for their expenses. The costs are going to be come out of our taxes," said Yoon Dong-hee, a 28-year-old student from Seoul.

"It's ridiculous. Look at our youth unemployment rate. If they're going to come, they'll come. Let them pay their own way," said Kim Da-eun, 30, of Bundang.

While the International Olympic Committee said it would cover "all costs" for North Korean athletes, there is a high chance that Seoul will pay the way for the entourage, Segye Ilbo reported.

In 2014, the South paid $429,000 for 306 North Korean athletes to participate in the Asian Games held in Incheon, dipping into the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund.

It also contributed $840,000 to cover costs for 221 athletes and 306 cheerleaders from the North at the 2003 Daegu Summer Universiade.

Last year, Seoul provided $65,000 for the North Korean taekwondo team's flight and accommodation for the 2017 World Taekwondo Championships.

"We've supported them before financially but they still do whatever they like. I'm all for having them come to the Olympics with us backing their bills if necessary but I think the [South Korean] government needs to handle this wisely," said Yoo Gyung-sung, a 64-year-old taxi driver in Seoul.

Moreover, observers say providing accommodation or travel to the Games could spark further criticism as the move may be seen as undermining global sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Under United Nations sanctions, which target the regime's cash flow, South Korea would be banned from providing cash or financial assets to the North.

The North Korean delegation would also face restrictions on travel to the South.

Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Moon-soon met with North Korean sports officials last month in China, where he reportedly offered to ferry the North's Olympic delegation to the South via cruise ship.

However, vessels that have stopped at ports in the North are banned from entering South Korea for a year.

Traveling to the South by air could also violate sanctions, as the North's national carrier Air Koryo has been blacklisted by Seoul and Washington.

Another point of concern is that the delegation may include high-ranking officials targeted by U.N. sanctions such as Choe Ryong-hae, known as the regime's second-in-command after leader Kim Jong Un.

Choe is subject to a travel ban and asset freeze for his involvement in the North's nuclear weapons program.

Park Jeong-jin, vice director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, warned against suggestions that the South temporarily ease sanctions to accommodate the delegation, saying such a move could stir up trouble down the road.

"The government needs to make efforts to balance inter-Korean relations and relations with the international community on the matter," he said, according to Yonhap.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the government plans to "cooperate closely with the international community to ensure U.N. sanctions are not violated" if Seoul covers the expenses for the North's delegation's stay.

Specific details of the North's participation in the Games will be discussed at an IOC meeting on Jan. 20.

However, prior talks between Seoul and Pyongyang to confirm the number of Olympic participants, and their mode of transport and other arrangements will likely take place as early as this week, the South's Unification Ministry said Thursday.

The Games begin Feb. 8.

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