UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A U.N. committee granted North Korea's high-level delegation heading to the Winter Olympics in South Korea an exemption from U.N. sanctions on Thursday, Security Council diplomats said.
The exemption directly affects Choe Hwi, who has been on the U.N. sanctions blacklist since June 2, 2017 and is subject to a travel ban and asset freeze. But it could also allow all delegation members to take home luxury goods whose import to North Korea is banned by the council.
Ambassador Karel Van Oosterom of the Netherlands, who chairs the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea, sent a proposed letter of approval Wednesday to the 15 council members with a deadline of 3 p.m. EST on Thursday for objections.
Three diplomats, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said there were no objections and the exemption was approved.
South Korean Charge d'affaires Ham Sang Wook asked the committee early Wednesday to grant a sanctions exemption to the 23-member high-level delegation from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — the country's official name — without naming Choe.
Ham said in a letter to Van Oosterom that the delegation's participation "will serve as a timely opportunity to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and beyond by promoting an environment conducive to a peaceful, diplomatic, and political solution concerning the situation on the peninsula."
Choe is identified on the U.N. sanctions blacklist as "First Vice Director of the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department, which controls all DPRK media and is used by the government to control the public."
But the delegation list submitted to the sanctions committee by South Korea identifies him as "Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission."
Ham said the delegation is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the games in Pyeongchang as well as engage in "high-level inter-Korean dialogue," among other events, from Friday through Sunday. He asked for a sanctions exemption for that period.
He noted that the committee can grant exemptions from sanctions on a case-by-case basis for any reason consistent with the objectives of relevant Security Council resolutions. He said the South Korean government wanted to stress that the DPRK visit is in line with council objectives that call for "efforts to engage in dialogue and reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
Van Oosterom's letter in reply notes the exemption request for the high-level delegation, "specifically the participation of Mr. Choe Hwi," who is under sanctions.
"I have the honor to inform you that following due consideration, the committee has decided to approve the requested exemption" from Feb. 9-11 in accordance with the latest sanctions resolution adopted unanimously in December which allows for case-by-case exemptions, the letter says.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters that Moscow absolutely had no objections and "we welcome" the visit.
"Any moves that would contribute to the peace process, I welcome," he said. "Any moves which contribute to the sides coming closer I welcome."