SEOUL (Reuters) - With the opening ceremony of the Incheon Asian Games just one week away, South Korea's government issued a stern reminder to its citizens on Friday that they are banned from carrying the North Korean flag.
Seoul's Unification Ministry said the North's flag would only be allowed to fly inside Asian Games stadiums and other official venues such as the athletes village, and that it would not be hoisted on the streets of host city Incheon.
Organisers of the Games have confirmed they had taken down flags of participating countries (NOCs) due to complaints from conservative groups about the North Korean flag and concerns that it could spark trouble.
However, this would appear to contravene the spirit of Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) article 58, which stipulate: "In all the stadiums and in their neighbourhood the OCA Flag must be freely flown with the flags of the competing NOCs".
Lee Cha-ho, overseas press relations manager, told Reuters on Friday that the complicated relationship between South and North Korea meant it was difficult to abide by the regulation governing where flags had to be flown.
"It could be seen that the organising committee is violating OCA article 58 in principle, but the relationship between the North and the South is a unique situation," said Lee.
"The North Korean flag itself can be problematic according to National Security Law and there is some anti-North Korean sentiment among the older generation so the committee has had to discuss the issue with the government."
Lee confirmed that the flags of the 45 countries competing at the 17th Asian Games had been taken down from roads in Incheon as well as neighbouring cities hosting events.
The flags have been replaced by OCA flags and Games emblems.
Tensions between North and South Korea are high and the two states are still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The North's participation in Incheon was in doubt only a few months ago after discussions with the South about the details of its delegation broke down.
Late last month it announced it had decided not to send a squad of 350 cheerleaders to Incheon and accused Seoul of "abusing sacred sports and cultural exchange" for a "sinister political purpose".
Seoul's Unification Ministry reinforced the government's position on the flag issue early on Friday.
"Our citizens are prohibited from possessing and bringing North Korean flags into the stadiums," Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said at a regular briefing.
"Our position has not significantly changed since the situations in 2002 and 2003," added Lim, referring to visits by North Korean athletes for the 2002 Busan Asian Games and the Universiade in Daegu the following year.
"At the time, there was also limited flying of the North Korean flag only at official ceremonies, at stadiums and in the athletes' village. As far as I am aware, the flag was not flown on the streets near the stadium."
South Korea's strict National Security Act vows to "restrict anti-state acts that endanger national security, and to protect (the) nation's safety and its people's life and freedom."
The law was first introduced in 1948 as a countermeasure against the then communist North, but has remained in place ever since with few amendments.
In a 2012 report, Amnesty International called on the South Korean government to abolish the act, which it said "undermined citizens' enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and association".
North Korea is sending a 273-member delegation of athletes and officials to Incheon and the first batch arrived on a direct flight from Pyongyang late on Thursday.
The Air Koryo flight carried soccer players and rowers as well as referees, medical staff and members of North Korean media, and was met by a small group of unification activists amid a heavy security presence.
The delegation went directly to the athletes village after arrival at Incheon and on Friday several North Korean flags could be seen hanging from windows in the village.
The North Korean men's and women's soccer teams will be in action early next week as the Asian Games competition kicks off several days before the opening ceremony on Sept. 19.
The hoisting of flags for international sporting events has given rise to previous controversies involving the two Koreas.
A World Cup qualifier in 2008 between the two countries had to be moved from Pyongyang to China after the North refused to play the South Korean anthem or raise its flag.
At the 2012 London Olympics, the North Korea women's soccer team walked off the field when the South Korea flag was mistakenly displayed before their match against Colombia.
Reporting by Sohee Kim and James Pearson; Editing by John O'Brien/Amlan Chakraborty