Since ancient times, the people of Korea have called their peninsula the Land of the Morning Calm. But for the past 15 months. South Korea has been the setting for a series of political demonstrations seemingly so explosive that the rest of the world has begun to wonder if the place should instead be called the Land of the Ticking Bomb. Indeed, with the Summer Olympics scheduled to begin in the capital of Seoul on Sept. 17, a small but growing number of non-Korean athletes and officials have expressed misgivings about competing in a city that seems to resemble a war zone more than the site of a sports festival.
This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue
Roger Kingdom, an American who was the men's 110-meter hurdles gold medalist at the 1984 Games, told The Washington Posts. couple of weeks ago, "Getting a gold medal is great, but it's not worth risking your life. When I think about this [Seoul], I think about Vietnam and I think about the Korean War. You don't want to go into the middle of that. If they continue to fight the way they are, I won't go."
Stephanie Hightower-Leftwich, a silver medalist from the U.S. in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1987 Pan Am Games, told the Post, "If I make the team, then my next biggest concern is. Do I want to go over there with all that unrest? What happened in Munich [where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics] could happen again. The athletes are the targets."
Most officials from the 161 nations that will be participating in the Games profess confidence in the elaborate security arrangements being made by the South Koreans. But what these officials are saying and what they are doing have left divergent impressions. Two weeks ago, word leaked out of a secret Australian government plan for evacuating its athletes by commercial aircraft from Seoul in the event of big trouble at the Olympics. Angered that the scheme had been exposed, the Australian Olympic Federation's secretary-general, Phil Coles, snapped to reporters, "This sort of thing is simply a routine part of preparing for any modern Olympics. Similar precautions were taken before the 1984 Los Angeles Games because of the threat of earthquakes." Nevertheless, the Canadian Olympic Association announced a couple of weeks ago that it might draft its own contingency plan for hustling athletes and officials out of South Korea.
So the alarms are out. And this, of course, is nothing new. Ever since 1981, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the '88 Games to Seoul, politicians, sportsmen and journalists have been questioning the wisdom of choosing this embattled Asian land as the site for an Olympics. The Korean War of the early 1950s, which followed the division of the country into two hostile nations, has never officially ended; today, 35 years after a cease-fire was declared, thousands of troops from the two Koreas remain poised along the 150-mile-long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), observing an anxious truce. Similarly, the street demonstrations that have taken place on and off in Seoul during the past year—and have flared up anew in recent weeks—are simply contemporary reflections of the country's historically unsettled state of affairs.
Thus it's prudent for athletes to wonder whether they'll be risking their lives by competing in such an environment. Can Seoul put on a peaceful Olympics? The answer from virtually all sources is, surprisingly enough, an unequivocal yes.
Of course no one at SLOOC, Seoul's Olympic organizing committee, has ever been anything but optimistic, and last week was no exception. Hwang Kyu Woong, security director of SLOOC, said, "At the peak Olympic moments, such as the opening ceremonies, we'll have 100,000 security police available. The seacoasts will have reinforced guards, and I'm told the American Seventh Fleet aircraft carrier Midway will be in the waters off Pusan. We have no doubt that we are ready to provide a peaceful Olympics."
Despite the criticism of its choice of Seoul, the IOC has never voiced any doubts about the decision. Last week IOC executive board member Richard Pound said, "I've always thought the Games would go well in Seoul. I think the domestic security problem is not any problem at all. The only wild card is whether North Korea will try to stage a provocation of some sort, and we'll just have to wait and see. But I've always been optimistic, and I still am."
North Korea remains the unknown factor in these Olympics. When the IOC chose Seoul, it also denied the North an equal role as host to the Games, and the reaction from the North Koreans has been bitter. Even so, the attitude among South Korean officials toward their enemy has been conciliatory on Olympic issues. An unprecedented IOC-backed offer to stage a few events in North Korea was rejected by Pyongyang, but SLOOC officials insist that the Games are still open to Northerners. Sangjin Chyun, deputy secretary of international relations for the committee, said, "North Korea is most welcome to come to these Games. It's a member of the Olympic movement, and there are absolutely no barriers to its participation. We are openhearted and hopeful that North Korea will be a part of these Olympics."
Of course no one can predict what the North Koreans might do. Indeed there's fear bordering on paranoia in South Korea about what dreadful deed they will perpetrate next. The last terrorist horror blamed on North Korea was the bombing of a Korean Air Lines jetliner that killed 115 people off the coast of Burma last November. Any similar acts before the start of the Games could frighten off spectators and athletes and leave these Olympics to be played out under a cloud of fear.
Yet it's the belief—or at least the hope—of many diplomatic and Olympic officials that because both China and the Soviet Union, North Korea's most important allies, intend to participate in the Seoul Games, the North Koreans will refrain from causing serious trouble. Indeed, last week Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, reported from Washington that North Korea had made a "secret promise" to the Soviets that it would not disrupt the Games. The source was an unnamed U.S. official who said that Americans had appealed to the Soviets during the recent Moscow summit to convince their client to lay off the Olympics.
Members of SLOOC and the IOC might be suspected of blatant boosterism in making rosy judgments about the prospects for a tranquil Games. But a somewhat more objective observer, a U.S. diplomat and longtime Asia hand who has spent 11 of the past 12 years in Korea, says, "During the Olympics, the streets of Seoul will be safer than a Sunday ball game in New York. I would bring my wife, my children, my grandparents to town, and I would let them go anywhere they wanted. Seoul is one of the safest cities on earth—and during the Olympics it will be even safer than usual."
How is it that such a consistently positive picture can be painted of a city that the world has seen to be under riotous siege night after night on television? Well, for one thing, when it comes to reporting violence, the TV eye often provides a warped and bloodshot view of the world. A 30-second news bite of street fighting in Seoul can make it seem as if an Asian Armageddon has begun.
Park Shin Ja, a retired South Korean women's basketball player who is now director of the Olympic basketball competition, says wearily, "Friends call me all the time from all over the world asking if I'm all right because they've just seen a riot on TV. I tell them time after time that these incidents are very isolated and that the city isn't really in flames and ruins."
This isn't to say that life in Seoul has been devoid of conflict. Last summer the streets were clogged for weeks with angry demonstrators in an uprising that ultimately produced a free presidential election and a new democratic constitution in a country that had been under authoritarian rule for 40 years. Koreans of all persuasions—from perennially angry college students to ordinarily placid shopkeepers, farmers and professional people—joined to make that grand rebellion a success.
This spring and summer, there again have been demonstrations in the streets. They may look the same as last year's on the nightly news, but they differ in significant ways. For one thing, the rioters in the more recent street battles have been almost entirely students; the work force has retired from fighting with the police. Also, the issues are not the same. Some of this year's demonstrators have been protesting the denial of full co-host status for North Korea in these Olympics; many more are demanding more vigorous government action to bring about reunification of the two Koreas.
Three weeks ago, about 13,000 South Korean students tried to march north to the DMZ, to meet with counterparts from the North. Forty thousand policemen intercepted the marchers. The United States has also been the target of recent student protests, which have railed at Washington for everything from causing the division of Korea in 1945 to trying to force the U.S.'s way into Korean markets with bullyboy tactics. As recently as May, students massed before the American embassy and threw homemade bombs at its buildings.
The most important difference between the riots of 1987 and those so far in '88 has been the great reduction in active participants this year. Where a murdered student's funeral procession drew a million mourners in January 1987, a similar street observance last May, held for a student who committed suicide after calling for reunification and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, attracted fewer than 50,000.
With the universities shut down for the summer—and with the Seoul government considering a delay in the reopening of classes until after the Games are concluded—the flames that kindled the recent demonstrations are all but extinguished. Sparks do continue to fly, however. Last week students from Dan-kook University in Seoul made it known that they planned to demonstrate at the National Assembly building at 5 p.m. on Friday. Green police buses arrived first, and troops carrying gas masks took up formation on the street. Bystanders glanced up and quickly went back to eating their pindaetok, a sort of Korean pizza. Students versus police was old stuff to them.
The demonstrators assembled pretty much on time in the plaza in front of the National Assembly. Most of them were women in blue jeans and T-shirts. They chanted slogans and then the police moved in rapidly to surround them. An unmarked police bus rolled up, and 100 plainclothesmen charged into the crowd and hauled the noisiest demonstrators into the bus. The remaining students linked arms and screamed. The police regrouped, charged twice more and hauled more yelling people into the bus. Some students tried to flee, but police chased and caught many of them. It was a frightening scene, and on the nightly news it probably looked as if Seoul were under siege again. In fact, there were never more than 500 students, confined to little more than a square block, and the confrontation appeared almost choreographed on both sides. The skirmish was considered so routine that no tally of either injuries or arrests was recorded.
Throughout this spring's demonstrations, the government of President Roh Tae Woo, who was elected in December under the democratic reforms adopted after last year's riots, has shown restraint in dealing with protesters. And around the time that the students' march to the DMZ was stopped, the Roh regime said that it was considering new efforts to meet with representatives of North Korea. When dissidents announced they would embark on another march north on Aug. 15, Korean Independence Day, Roh's spokesmen said that the government hoped to sponsor its own North-South Independence Day meeting between students.
In Seoul, at least, optimism is the prevailing mood. As one veteran observer from the U.S. says, "It just doesn't feel like a powder keg to me, and you have to remember that, given all the upheaval and violence they've experienced here, there's no place in the world better prepared to provide superhuman security than Seoul." Indeed, if the morning calm is ever to return to Korea, the Olympic Games might offer the best opportunity in years for it to arrive.