When the world sees Seoul on the TV evening news, the picture is usually violent—burning cars, bursting tear gas grenades, enraged cops, infuriated rioters. And so the world wonders whether Seoul can possibly be safe enough to allow the 1988 Olympic Games to go on undisturbed.
The answer is yes, it probably can. But as with just about everything in the ancient and ambiguous land of Korea, it's not a simple matter—certainly not as simple as the 30-second slice of Korean life the world sees on the TV news.
Complexity and contradiction are the daily bread for 41 million inhabitants of the Republic of Korea. For we are talking about a nation whose economy is skyrocketing along at an annual growth rate of 15.6% for the first four months of 1987; at the same time, the country is under the unpopular reign of a strong-arm president. We are talking about a society that has spent $1.66 billion to create the most tasteful Olympic architecture in memory, with seemingly effortless efficiency; at the same time, South Korea is under constant threat of sabotage and attack by a nation of enemy/brothers to the north. We are talking about a country in which a leading member of the ruling party, said last week with a comfortable smile, "Of course there is turbulence. Of course there are demonstrations. It may look horrible on the TV box, but as far as Koreans are concerned, it is business as usual. Korea is stable. In every aspect our Olympics are an assured success."
He has probably hit the nail on the head, Korean style. Demonstrations and civil upheaval have been a way of life in South Korea for many years. The current turmoil is no more violent or impassioned than in the past. Only the causes are different.
June 7, 1987
These days the focus of protest is the regime of President Chun Doo Hwan, who was elected in 1981 following a military takeover and the murder of the previous president in 1979, the dictatorial Park Chung Hee, who had ruled South Korea for 18 years. Once in office, Chun agreed to a constitutional amendment limiting him to a single seven-year term. Now his time is up, and Chun has promised to relinquish his presidency on Feb. 25, 1988, as the constitution requires. He has, however, left in place a disputed election process similar to the one that put him in office in the first place. As a result, the winner of this fall's presidential election will be a handpicked protègè—probably Roh Tae Woo, chairman of Chun's Democratic Justice Party (DJP) and former president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC).
Opposition politicians, in Seoul have fiercely protested the lack of free elections, and university students have rioted in the streets over the issue. Chun has remained intransigent, ignoring all suggestions for election reform. On April 13 he declared that even public debate about free elections would be suspended until after the Olympics, which begin on Sept. 17, 1988, run their course. This further angered various rebel factions who had already given Seoul a violent spring with repeated riots and demonstrations protesting the torture-murder in January of a student activist, Park Jong Chul, by the national police. The killing had been followed by a clumsy government cover-up of the incident.
A senior Western diplomat, now on his second tour of duty in Korea, sketched this portrait of the Chun regime for SI's Robert Sullivan in Seoul last week: "This government is immensely unpopular, and many people like to draw a parallel with Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. It is true that Chun has ruled with an iron fist. He did come to power in a coup and he has been unpopular since the beginning. It's different from Marcos, though. The army is very disciplined, very loyal. Unfortunately for the opposition, the army sees the anti-Chun people as opportunistic. This government has very few supporters, but there are a lot of people who are not enamored of the opposition either. Change in the long term is inevitable here. But in the short term the government is in complete control."
Some opposing Chun have decried the 1988 Olympics as being a symbol of government oppression. Kim Young Sam, 59, the recently named president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party (RDP), was particularly blunt in making the point: "If the 1988 Olympics are to be a self-advertisement for this government, and if the people are to be coerced by the use of government force to participate, then our Olympics will be no more than a reenactment of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 under the Nazis."
An outspoken member of the anti-Chun Catholic clergy, Archbishop Victorino Youn Kong Hi of Kwangju, recently declared that instead of "achieving the status of an advanced nation through a sports event, we should attain that status by protecting human rights and eliminating injustices and corruption." The archbishop assailed the government's action in seemingly giving the Olympics priority over political reforms, saying, "No event or project can constitute a reason to suppress even temporarily the people's right to a decent life."
But there appears to be little public support for this Olympics-be-damned sentiment. Even most members of the political opposition seem to regard the Olympics as a unique opportunity and a potential source of national pride. Kim Dae Jung, 63, the "other Kim," is one of the best-known antigovernment politicians in South Korea. Kim, who lost to Park in the 1971 presidential election with 44% of the vote, went into self-exile in the U.S. in 1982 and returned to Seoul in February 1985. He has been under house arrest almost since his return but remains an influential opposition leader. Last week, Kim told SI's Sullivan in a telephone interview, "Chun has too much exploited the Games for his political purposes. He says he stopped debate until the Olympics so the Games will be successful, but we have enough time for plenty of discussing without affecting the Olympics. Shutting off debate hardly promotes stability. No one has any intent to destroy the Olympic Games. If this government continues as it is, then there will no doubt be instability which could threaten the Games. But we, as much as anyone, dearly desire a successful Olympic Games."
A student demonstrator who demanded anonymity because he feared government reprisals said, "It seems we now have no immediate plans on what to do about the Olympics because it is more than a year away. We think it is wrong to assume that a sports festival should take precedence over everything, including the democratization of our country. But most of us hope the Olympics stay out of politics and will never be stained by politics."
Of course, both sides have stained the Olympics again and again for their own political ends. Chun is holding the Games hostage so he can perpetuate his regime in an atmosphere of maximum "stability." By warning of the possibility of Olympic "instability," the opposition appears to be using the Games to apply pressure to Chun. Yet Olympic officials believe that domestic politics pose no serious threat to next year's Games. Richard W. Pound, an International Olympic Committee executive board member from Canada, told SI's Anita Verschoth last week, "Everyone in [South] Korea wants the Games to be a success and recognizes their great importance for Korea. The opposition people say they'd like [political changes! before the Games, but they don't go so far as to say that they will ruin it all for their own political purposes. Korea will be around for a long time after 1988, and it will be great for the national legacy if the Olympics are a success."
IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch also was full of optimism last week when he talked to Verschoth: "I was there during the Asian Games last fall, and during those Games Korean security measures worked perfectly. I have great confidence that nothing will happen to our Olympic Games either."
Indeed, the Chun government last week took steps that seemed to indicate a welcome softening of its intransigence. First, President Chun responded to the scandal over the cover-up of the student's torture-killing. He asked for letters of resignation from all 26 members of his cabinet, then dumped his prime minister, deputy prime minister, the ministers of justice and home affairs and the director of the South Korean equivalent of the CIA. This was followed by the arrest of three senior police officers, all of whom were charged with masterminding the cover-up.
At almost the same time, reports spread that there was some kind of compromise in the offing between Chun's anointed replacement, Roh, and the RDP opposition. Roh is expected to be nominated as his party's presidential candidate at its June 10 convention. The consensus in Seoul is that Roh may try to come up with some mild reform in the election process that would not threaten his victory but would somehow prevent the RDP's boycott of the election, which will be held sometime this fall. At week's end, Roh and Kim Young Sam were both talking publicly about actually meeting face to face, which would be a first.
But if internal strife in South Korea hasn't produced a general sense of Olympic pessimism, the continuing threat of violence from the north is still very real. The unpredictable panjandrums of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, have been playing odd games with the Olympics for some time now. They have been insisting that North Korea be allowed to host 50% of the Olympic events or face a possible boycott. The demand is unprecedented, but by agreement with Seoul Olympic officials, Samaranch offered the North Koreans a piece of the Olympics—table tennis, archery, soccer preliminaries and the 50-K bicycle race—for 1988. The North Koreans have refused the offer.
Through it all, Samaranch has been remarkably patient. But last week the North Koreans may have gone too far. A two-man delegation from the IOC was in Pyongyang to look at would-be Olympic venues. One condition the IOC set was that during the Olympics the North-South border be opened at Panmunjom to officials, journalists and competitors, and accordingly, Samaranch asked that the border be opened to his delegates as part of last week's IOC visit. After dangling the possibility that it would accede to the request, North Korea finally said no. Samaranch issued a statement saying he was "extremely disappointed." Discussions are expected to continue at an IOC meeting in mid-July in Lausanne, Switzerland, but last week's action by the North Koreans certainly made compromise more difficult.
Many South Koreans are unhappy that the IOC negotiations have reached such an impasse. Paik Naksuh, a special adviser to Chun's Democratic Justice Party, said last week, "Being Korean, you can say that I am 'desperately optimistic' about the IOC compromise. I don't like to think it's doomed. To have them [the North Koreans] come and have a unified Games, it's a dream come true."
If North Korea boycotts the Olympics, there is the threat of sabotage and terrorism—such as the bomb, believed by South Korean officials to be the handiwork of North Korean agents, that exploded at Seoul's Kimpo Airport just six days before the Asian Games last September, killing five and injuring more than 30. And what of the threat of a supporting boycott among North Korea's powerful Communist allies, including Eastern Europe and China? At this point, indications in Moscow and Peking are that if North Korea boycotts the Games, it may be on its own. In which case, says Paik, the North Koreans may have to eschew violence or risk being "not only enemies to the world, but also to their own best friends."
The Western diplomat who spoke to Sullivan put it this way: "The cards are certainly in South Korea's favor, because North Korea is less likely to do something with their allies aligning themselves with the Games. However, if North Korea tries something, I can't think of a country more alert, quicker to react and tougher than South Korea. I've heard the South Koreans mentioned in the same breath as Israel. If anyone's capable of assuring us a secure Olympics, it's Korea."
Of course, conditions in political tinderboxes like the Korean peninsula sometimes have a way of deteriorating, and sudden events—an invasion from the north, a major political assassination—could conceivably ruin these Games. But at the moment the Seoul Olympics are very much on track. The physical facilities for the Games are impressive, perhaps the finest ever built. Almost 16 months before the Olympics begin, SLOOC is putting the finishing touches on a few remaining items, mainly a swimming stadium, the Olympic Village and the Press Village. Meanwhile, the Olympic brass has given South Korea a telling vote of confidence. Many people have assumed that, under the circumstances, the IOC would have a backup Olympic site all ready to go. This is not the case. As the IOC's Pound said last week, "We have absolutely no contingency plans. We don't have any alternate sites for the Olympics."
So much for the Seoul the world sees on the evening news.