Seoul mulls meeting North Korean request to fuel artists’ ship as sanctions concerns loom

AP, AFP-JIJI

South Korea said Wednesday it was reviewing whether to meet North Korea’s request to provide fuel to the ferry that transported more than 100 North Korean artists for performances at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Supplying the fuel would be a difficult decision for South Korea amid concerns that the North is trying to use the Olympics to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said North Korea asked the South to supply fuel for the 9,700-ton Mangyongbong-92. He didn’t say how much fuel the North wants. It’s also unclear how long the ferry will stay.

“We will closely discuss with the United States and other related nations the matter of providing convenience to the Mangyongbong ferry so that no problem regarding sanctions would occur,” Baik said.

The ferry arrived at an eastern South Korean port Tuesday afternoon with 114 members of an art troupe that will perform in Gangneung on Thursday and Seoul on Feb. 11. While the artists left the ferry Wednesday for a rehearsal in Gangneung, the ship’s 96 crew members and attendants stayed aboard, Baik said.

The North on Wednesday lashed out at anti-Pyongyang activists rallying a day earlier against its participation in the Olympics, dismissing a dockside protest in Gangneung as a “spasm of psychopaths.”

Hundreds of angry South Korean conservatives demonstrated Tuesday as the ship carrying the performers arrived.

Some carried pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with a huge “X” across his face, while others crumpled the images, stamping them underfoot, and burned both a North Korean flag and a unified Korea flag.

They “ran around like headless chickens, barking that ‘the ship of reds came, ‘go back to your country’ and ‘boost the south Korea-U.S. alliance,’ ” the state-run North’s Korean Central News Agency said.

“Worse still, they made no bones about besmirching the dignity of the DPRK supreme leadership and burning the flags of the DPRK (North Korea) and the Korean Peninsula,” it said.

Any insult to the ruling Kim dynasty always provokes the North’s ire.

North Korea also on Wednesday sent a 280-member delegation, including 229 members of a state-trained cheering group, via the land border for the Olympics. The North Korean delegates also including national Olympic officials, journalists and members of a taekwondo demonstration team.

The war-separated rivals are cooperating for a series of conciliatory measures during the Olympics, which Seoul sees as an opportunity to ease tensions with Pyongyang following an extended period of animosity over its nuclear weapons and missiles program.

A decision by South Korea to accept North Korea’s offer to send its artists by sea has triggered debate in the South, where conservatives saw the move as a sure-fire sign that the North is trying to use the Olympics to ease the pressure against the country.

In allowing the ferry, Seoul treated it as an exception to the sanctions imposed on North Korea. The measures ban North Korean vessels from ports in the South or South Korean territorial waters.

While South Korea says the move was inevitable to ensure the successful hosting of the Pyeongchang Games, some critics say Seoul is sending the wrong message to North Korea and also the international community, which has been stepping up financial and maritime sanctions against the North in recent months.