Seoul, spring of 1988. Construction dust from new, made-for-the-Olympics hotels mingles in the still-chilly air with exhaust fumes from—Gephardtian nightmare—a bumper-to-bumper procession of Hyundais and Daewoos. The Han River has been cleaned up in anticipation of the Games, and dog and snake meat have been largely eliminated from restaurant menus lest Olympic-goers think the host nation less than modern. Proprietors of food stalls in the alleys of Myongdong, Seoul's busiest nightlife area, harangue passersby with promises of snake, but an image-conscious Korean friend later offers assurances that the creatures slithering around in tanks are in fact eels.
I have just returned from a fact-finding trip to South Korea without having found the facts. That is, I can't say for sure that the Summer Olympics will be a success. I can only report that Seoul is preparing for the Games with surpassing confidence.
Overlooking City Hall Plaza in the heart of this gray metropolis of more than 10 million, a large electronic sign displays a number—176 one day, 175 the next. The countdown will reach zero on Sept. 17, the day the Olympics will start. In Itaewon, the bustling district where many of the 45,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Korea shop by day and carouse by night, merchants peddle shoddy apparel bearing five interlocking rings as if these were official Olympic wares. In a doorway stands a man with a tape measure around his neck; a sign in the window reads OLYMPIC TAILOR. Olympic officials will not easily combat such unauthorized use of the Olympic name and symbols in a city in which knockoffs of Chanel handbags, Louis Vuitton luggage and other designer goods are sold in abundance.
But there are bigger worries than somebody making a few won off bogus Olympic T-shirts. Just 30 miles from Seoul lies the tense frontier with unremittingly hostile North Korea. The Communist state casts a cloud over the Games, especially after last November's midair explosion of a Korean Air Lines plane that killed all 115 aboard. Seoul—and Washington—say that the airliner's destruction was part of a plot by North Korea to sabotage the Games.
At Seoul's Kimpo International Airport, where a bomb killed five people six days before the start of the 1986 Asian Games—another atrocity blamed on North Korea—an imposing gauntlet of metal detectors and body searchers awaits arriving and departing passengers. An atmosphere of extreme caution is also evident in a fifth-floor office at the Olympic Center where Hwang Kyu Woong, director general for security of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, shows off a large organization chart and explains how his 30,000 security guards will work with police and South Korea's military to protect Olympic athletes and venues.
Despite this typically ironfisted approach to security, South Korea's new rulers appear to be groping for the velvet glove. The new president, Roh Tae Woo, has sought to distance himself from the often brutal regime of his predecessor and mentor, Chun Doo Hwan. Earlier this month the government said it would pay compensation to families of the hundreds of protesters killed by troops in 1980 in the city of Kwangju, an incident that has been a major source of anti-government discontent. Roh presents himself as a man of the people. While I was in Seoul, he attended a performance of Swan Lake by the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet at the Sejong Cultural Center. Later that day a government official told me that, in keeping with Roh's wishes, police hadn't closed off half the streets of Seoul to accommodate the president's motorcade, as they'd routinely done when Chun ventured out in public.
Opposition politicians remain skeptical of Roh's avowedly democratic intentions, but most South Koreans, even the notably rebellious students, share his desire for a successful Olympics. And when these industrious people pull together, they're able to work wonders, as the country's bumptious prosperity suggests. On a previous visit to Seoul, I was in a car with a driver trying to pass through clogged, rush-hour streets. For such contingencies, the driver had attached a red flag to his antenna, a flourish meant to suggest that his was some sort of official vehicle. He set out with frightening boldness, often traveling on the wrong side of the street, as other motorists and pedestrians deferentially gave way. Remarkably, several policemen even waved us through red lights.
As we sped along, flag flapping grandly in the breeze, it was hard to tell which was more characteristically Korean—the resourcefulness of the driver or the earnestness of those helping us pass. In either case, it occurred to me that Seoul's Olympics may turn out to be much like our car: moving steadily forward in the face of obstacles, commanding more respect than they probably deserve, and safely reaching their destination.