The 23rd Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are little more than a month away. We do not know yet what impact the world festival on snow and ice will have on this country, which is undergoing immense domestic and external woes. Financially, a balance sheet in red letters is very likely, but some magic outcome may not be too far-fetched when we recall what happened three decades ago.
We happily recall the excitement of watching the TV broadcast on the night of Sept. 30, 1981, when International Olympic Committee President Antonio Samaranch pronounced “Se-oul!” as the host city of the 24th Summer Olympics. Seven years later, South Korea managed the two-week event to much success and under perfect, clear skies.
The host nation showed unreserved kindness to visitors from all parts of the globe, including those from the Eastern bloc in the still ideologically divided world, and did everything to keep the games free of any trouble. Korean athletes also did well in the competitions, placing fourth with 12 gold medals in the competition with a then-record 160 countries participating. The Seoul Olympics also proved financially profitable.
Koreans showed the world what they had achieved on political and economic fronts alike. While Korea’s national wealth continued to swell, so did Koreans’ democratic aspirations. The military government had promoted sports and entertainment as a means of diverting people’s political fervor. A vigorous campaign was launched to make a bid for hosting the Olympic Games.
Initially, it was considered an outlandish dream, but the joint civilian-official drive succeeded in its first try at Baden-Baden, Germany in 1981, edging Nagoya, Japan. It was ironic that, if the Olympic bid began in an attempt at controlling the masses, the status as host of the upcoming Olympics actually prevented military rulers from taking forceful measures against rising demands for democracy. They could not afford to hold the games under martial law.
History since the 1980s is a fascinating chapter of political compromises worthy of serious academic research. A sort of soft landing was made when the military accepted democratic reforms but a retired general was elected president. Roh Tae-woo passed the presidency to Kim Young-sam, a pro-democracy fighter, after they merged their parties despite few commonalities between them -- aside from the desire to keep power in the largely conservative southeastern turf.
Kim distinguished himself by completing civilian control, but succumbed to corruption in his inner circle and the storm of the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The 10 years of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations that followed sharpened domestic polarization between the left and right, and conservatives asserted their weight in social balance by awarding power to Lee Myung-bak, a champion of Korea Inc. The rightist rule continued through Park Geun-hye until its disastrous end last year.
When Korea made its first unsuccessful bid for the Winter Olympics in the early 2000s, there was no particular political motivation but the ambition of Gov. Kim Jin-sun of Gangwon Province, the most mountainous and snowy region. With central government support, Korea finally won the right to host the 2018 Winter Games in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, in the third try following narrow defeats to Vancouver and Sochi.
On Feb. 9 when President Moon Jae-in declares the games open at the stadium in the valley of the Taebaeksan mountains, drone TV cameras will fly 80 kilometers northward from above the PyeongChang venues to the North Korean border. News announcers will explain that a young dictator across the Demilitarized Zone is threatening the whole world, toting an array of missiles possibly mounted with nuclear bombs or chemical and biological agents.
In between their narrations on the natural and artificial conditions at PyeongChang, some may mention that Korea’s president in power until March last year remains jailed on corruption charges. They may kindly note that in another cell in the same facility is the leader of Korea’s largest conglomerate, which accounts for 20 percent of Korea’s total exports, as he awaits sentencing for his alleged bribery of the former president.
The size of our shame in 2018 should be as big as that of the pride we had in 1988 if the two things could be measured by any neuropsychological methods. Some official sources try to comfort us with “news” that Korea this year becomes the seventh member of the “30-50 club” of nations with per capita gross domestic product above $30,000 and a population of over 50 million.
The government that we now have, though it was installed through a fair election, was not born under normal circumstances but from an emergency created by immense mistakes at the crest of power. The Moon Jae-in administration has yet to earn public trust in either economic policies or in diplomatic and security strategies given the tough task of solving a high-level equation with China, Japan, Russia and the United States as variables, not to mention North Korea.
Kim Jong-un’s sudden offer of direct North-South contact in his New Year’s address with the bait of Pyongyang’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics has excited Southern officials. The Blue House would regard it as the result of its patient conciliatory approach to the North, but they should be cautioned it could be a ploy to drive a wedge between opposing political forces here and between Seoul and Washington.
Pyongyang cannot spread the pain of international isolation to its people by boycotting the Olympics. They are also using the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to change its pace, if not the aggressive course itself. As for us in the South, the games should be an occasion where we realize that all nations in the global village have the one and same ideal of peace, which cannot be threatened by one irrational member of the world community.
The mysterious power of unity shall be generated here when office workers, students, homemakers, lawmakers, unionists, teachers, soldiers, firefighters, police officers, salespeople, taxi drivers, business executives, refugees from the North, migrant workers and President Moon himself clap and shout together to root on athletes at the ice rinks and snow slopes.
The year 2018 can hardly be equated with 1988, but the Olympics are still sure to have a significant effect on Korean souls despite the passage of time. Let all of us dream that we will have a different Republic of Korea after the Olympic torch is extinguished and the foreign visitors have left. By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ed.