North Korea has an odd Olympic spirit: on Friday the country foiled Samsung’s plan to provide its Summer Olympics athletes with free Galaxy S7 handsets — stripping them from the country’s strongest hands.
Samsung’s giveaway was part of a promotion the company coordinated last week. The Korean smartphone maker, an official sponsor of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, provided 12,500 Galaxy S7 smartphones to the Games’ numerous participants — among them 11,200 athletes from 206 countries — to use during pre-game festivities on August 5.
They shipped with a pre-installed “flag app” containing the digital banner colors of every participating country — including North Korea. “(The athletes) can use the entire screen of the S7 to become a flag,” Pio Schunker, a Samsung representative, told the Associated Press. “They will be waving (their) national flag through the S7.”
North Korean athletes were barred from participating. North Korea’s Olympic Committee forbade them from carrying Galaxy S7 units “as they entered Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony,” according to Radio Free Asia, and a spokesperson for Samsung later told the publication that a North Korean team manager confiscated the devices. Reportedly, government officials were concerned that the phones would provide a means to “access the Samsung exhibition, where the company displayed South Korean electronics.”
The manager who took the allotment of phones was later identified by Olympics organizers as Yoon Sungbum. He refused to comment on the fate of the Samsung phones, but Kim Song I, a North Korean table tennis player, reportedly shook her head when asked by Radio Free Asia whether or not she had received one.
There’s precedent for North Korea’s behavior, apparently. South Korean team managers told Radio Free Asia that the dictatorship’s coaches regularly confiscate electronics intended for the country’s athletes — an effort intended to limit their contact with the outside world.
The movements of North Korean Olympic competitors are restricted in other ways. They aren’t allowed to see “places of interest” or “mix with others,” restrictions that observers say are meant as deterrents against defection. It’s a relatively common occurrence at international sporting events: as many as 45 members of the Eritrean soccer team, for instance, have sought asylum in various host countries during trips abroad.
Following the 2012 Olympic games in London, several Olympians from Cameroon and Sudan attempted to obtain temporary residence in Britain. In 2008, five Cuban soccer players defected in Tampa, Florida during an Olympic qualifier; the Romanian junior world wrestling team sought refuge in Australia in 1999; and in 1996, an Iraqi weightlifter fled from his hotel in Atlanta.
Despite North Korea’s iron grip on its athletes’ movements, the country has long celebrated the collective achievements of its top physical performers. It’s competed in every Summer Olympics since 1972, with the exception of the two it boycotted — the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul. And the country’s competitors have performed exceptionally well: North Korea has won medals at every game it’s attended, and now has 49 in total.
Supreme leader Kim Jong Un holds the country’s athletics program in particularly high regard, according to the New York Times. This year, he instructed the Rio-bound team to “come back with five gold medals.”
Article originally published in August 2016.
Updated on 08-16-2016: Added additional details about potential motivation for the confiscation.