The Korean smartphone company, an official sponsor of this year’s Olympic games in Rio, furnished Galaxy S7 handsets as part of a promotion giving away 12,500 phones to participants in the games, including 11,200 athletes from 206 countries. The smartphones were to be used during the August 5th pre-games festivities.
According to Radio Free Asia, the North Korean athletes were barred from participating in the promotion and the DPRK government forbade them from carrying the devices, "as they entered Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony." A Samsung spokesperson said that a North Korean team manager confiscated the phones, worried that the athletes would be able to "access the Samsung exhibition, where the company displayed South Korean electronics."
South Korean team managers say this is not the first time this has happened, and that North Korea regularly confiscates electronics given their athletes. Some analysts feel this tactic is a way to discourage defection and to keep North Korean athletes from seeing "places of interest" or being able to "mix with others."
Defection is not uncommon, as athletes from countries with political unrest or repressive governments often seek refuge in other countries while traveling to participate in international sports events. Eritrea had 45 soccer players seek asylum in other countries while staying in host countries. In 1996, an Iraqi weightlifter tried to flee from his Atlanta hotel room; In 1999, the entire Romanian junior world wrestling team sought refuge in Australia; five Cuban soccer players defected in Tampa, Florida, during an Olympic qualifier in 2008; and after the 2012 Olympics in London, athletes from Sudan and Cameroon attempted to establish temporary residence in Britain.
North Korea has competed in every Summer Olympics since 1972, except for the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul, Korea, which were both boycotted. The country has won medals at every Olympics in which it has participated, and has 49 medals total.
DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong Un holds the country’s athletes in high esteem, instructing them to "come back with five gold medals," after the Rio games.