In few nations has history accelerated as swiftly as in South Korea: In the span of a lifetime, it has transformed from a war-torn wasteland in 1953, through industrial powerhouse and infant democracy, to 2018’s hi-tech heart of Asian cool.
Over the last three decades, that racing history has been milestoned by three great sporting events: The 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and now, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The changes have been so vast that an Olympic volunteer in Seoul 1988, who is volunteering once again at Pyeongchang 2018, was barely able to verbalize them. ”In my experience, the difference is the infrastructure,” said Choi, Sang-hwan, a 73-year-old retiree. “I used to bring water in jars and cups – now we have water bottles! In every single way, there is a huge difference.”
Via the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Korea remade its prior image as a land of war and violent protest by flexing newly acquired industrial muscle, brandishing glittering new infrastructure and flaunting an infant democracy. But it was rough around the edges; A stern-faced, unsophisticated country, with significant traces of authoritarianism.
The 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup presented a cheerier image. Korean was funky, youthful and high-tech, home to surging global brands and the nascent “Korean Wave.” In contrast to the “top-down” management of 1988, 2002 was energized by a “bottom-up” public spirit that ignited a spontaneous street festival which charmed the world.
2018’s Korea is the world’s 11th largest economy and a globalizing society. National branding initiatives are muted: If anything, these Games seem more about North Korea than South. Public sentiment verges on indifference: There is a “been there, done that” attitude. Perhaps South Korea has matured to the point where it no longer needs to chase the global limelight so frantically.
Yet, North Korea’s presence in Pyeongchang – Pyongyang’s team was absent in both 1988 and 2002 – exemplifies South Korea’s last and possibly greatest national challenge: To somehow hurdle immense political, ideological and strategic barriers to reconcile – and ultimately, re-unite – with its estranged, dangerous and alien northern neighbor.
1988 Summer Olympics: The ‘coming out’ party
In 1987, South Korea won full democracy: “People power” protests that year capped a decade of demonstrations against authoritarian governance. But while politically oppressive, the military dictatorships that ruled from 1961-1987 had industrialized with tremendous success. By 1988, the country was an export powerhouse; its “economic warriors” were selling steel, petrochemicals, autos, ships and electronic components worldwide.
The national mission was to stamp this transformed nation onto the global mind-map. “The message to the world was, ‘There’s a country called Korea,’” recalled Hwang Doo-jin, then a conscript soldier, today one of Korea’s most famed architects. “Those who knew Korea knew the Korean War and bad political issues – there was nothing positive about Korea at the time. The entire country thought we had to show that we exist as a member of the free world.”
Visitors, anticipating third-world poverty, were astonished by the development. “I knew nothing about Korea, just MASH,” said American Tami Overby, then a tourist, referring to the US TV series set in wartime Korea. “Then, going from Gimpo Airport, I see all these high rise apartments – holy smokes!”
Equally impressive was the national spirt. “Seeing an entire nation mobilize with one goal was phenomenal – be it a taxi driver or a woman who cleaned restrooms,” continued Overby, who would stay for 21 years, becoming head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea and subsequently, Senior Vice President for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington. “They took on the Olympics to put a positive face of Korea to the world.”
Games management was superb. The iconic spectacle was hundreds of taekwondo players performing in synch at the opening ceremony: A fitting symbol for an aggressive, rising – and still-militaristic – nation. There was a fiercely tribal side to ’88 Korea. “Every corner of society was nationalistic,” said Hwang. “We did not care for sports – but if we were in the Olympics, we got excited.”
Meanwhile, wider geopolitical currents were flowing with increasing momentum.
The 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had been marred by Cold War boycotts, and North Korea did its utmost to ensure that its allies did not go to Seoul. In advance of a 1987 meeting of Eastern Bloc countries about attending the Games, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner in the Middle East. All aboard died. “That would have provided a pretext for the Eastern Bloc not to go,” recalled Briton Mike Breen, then a journalist. “But the mood was changing: there was perestroika and glasnost. The Eastern Bloc decided to attend.”
Seoul ’88 would be a key landmark prior to the collapse of European communism. “The thought of communist countries and China coming to South Korea was unheard of – an extraordinary thing to conceive!” Breen, now the head of a PR firm and a noted author, continued. “When the Chinese entered the stadium they got an enormous welcome from the Koreans, and this made a big impact.”
Post-Games, diplomatic ties were swiftly established between Seoul and Eastern Bloc nations.
North Korea, which did not attend, had missed the bus, while South Korea had impressed the world. “The symbolism for the South Koreans was a global acknowledgment of their ascendency over North Korea,” said Breen. Even Koreans were impressed by their achievement. “We had reached a certain level of maturity and prosperity, and that was a very, very new feeling,” said Hwang. “All through my youth and college, I was telling myself that I belonged to a very poor country.”
2002 World Cup: Joy – unfettered and unplanned
When Korea jointly hosted the World Cup with Japan, 14 short years later, the country was a different place. Post democratization, Korea issued passports, granting citizens the freedom to travel. The expatriate population soared and Korea was beginning to globalize, while a “Korea Wave” wave of pop culture was starting to wash through Japan and China.
Korea had emerged – with flying colors – from the IMF bailout of the 1997-8 Asian economic crisis. While some conglomerates, notably Daewoo, had collapsed, survivors such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG, were stronger than ever. Moreover, having been forced to divest non-core assets, they had upgraded from commodity players to global brands: Samsung in electronics and ships; Hyundai in autos and ships; LG in electronics. A high-tech revolution – Korea embraced the advanced CDMA mobile telecoms standard, and seeded itself with broadband Internet – had added a second string to the metal-bashing industries of yore. And a long-closed market had opened to foreign goods and services.
“In a sense, the recovery from crisis before the World Cup gave people pride and consolation,” said Kim Sang-hun, at the time a corporate lawyer, who later became become CEO of Naver, one of Korea’s leading Internet enterprises. “There had been five years of economic hardships.”
The football kicked off. To the surprise of the world – not least, Koreans themselves – the national squad did better than ever (and much better than arch-rival and co-host Japan). In response, something remarkable happened. The national cheering squad, the “Red Devils” flooded city centers to watch matches on giant screens in their hundreds of thousands. The massive crowds recalled the “people power” pro-democracy protests of 1987 – but this time, they were happy.
Most remarkably, this gigantic street party was unplanned.
“In 1988, the whole thing was staged, we were simply following orders,” said Hwang. “In 2002 nobody told us what to do, we did what we wanted, it was spontaneous.” And the aggressive nationalism of ‘88 was absent. “The interest shifted from proving ourselves to the world and winning, to enjoyment of the game, having a good time and sharing this general feeling of being happy, prosperous and free,” Hwang, who remembering high-fiving strangers in the street, recalled.
National self-confidence had soared. “In 1988, we did not enjoy it, we were very nervous about whether we could do it or not,” said Kim. “But 2002 was a really happy moment: People enjoyed the events and weren’t worrying about how we could run it properly.”
Still, there were fears. Anti-Americanism, sparked by the death of two schoolchildren in a road accident with US troops, who had legal immunity, had flared. Overby attended the Korea-USA match with the US ambassador. “He said, follow us, follow our security detail, there is a helicopter in the parking lot,” she said. “They had an exit plan.”
In fact, the match was a draw; nothing untoward happened. Anti-American demonstrations would explode after the soldiers were acquitted in a court-martial after the Cup’s conclusion; the downtown crowds recalled the huge cheering squads earlier in the year.
North Korea, absent from the Cup, behaved true to form – deadly form. On the day of Korea’s last match of the tourney, acting with breathtaking cynicism, Pyongyang engineered a naval clash that killed six and wounded 18 South Korean sailors.
Winter Olympics 2018: The “Peace Olympics?”
2018 grants Korea a hat-trick of highly prestigious global sporting events and massively upgrades the transport links to Gangwon, the rugged and under-populated province in which it takes place. But the national mood is subdued.
The public exhortations, giant billboards, signs across roads and banners hanging from downtown buildings seen in 1988 and 2002 are largely absent. The most visible signs of the Games are TV ads, and the ubiquitous Olympic mascots, a bear and a tiger, in public buildings and transport hubs. Moreover, winter sports are not fully globalized: Regions, such as Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are un- or under-represented.
Few Koreans see a mission statement. “I think most Koreans believe that we have been here before – do we need to prove more?” said Hwang. “There is a specter, an eerie feeling, that it was started by government again – it’s ‘back to the future.’”
The news that North Korea, which missed both 1988 and 2002, would attend in 2018 jolted the world and suddenly made Pyeongchang one of the biggest news stories on earth. President Moon Jae-in has rebranded the event – formerly dubbed “Passion, Connected” and “It’s you, Pyeongchang” – “The Peace Olympics,” hoping to create a breathing space in which the two Koreas can talk, and open a more substantial communications channel leading to reconciliation and – perhaps – the distant dream of reunification. With this – and tension reduction in mind – Seoul is enthusiastically enabling Northern participation.
“In 1988, the attitude was ‘Up yours, North Korea – we are the real Korea!’” said Breen. “Now there is a different attitude.”
However, there are social divisions in the South over the generosity offered to North Korea – and this may illustrate the starkest change from 1988 and 2002, when the nation stood united.
“The government has failed to show the people that they are up to dealing with the new awareness among younger Koreans that there is a conflict between nationalism and individualism, between government and citizens,” mused Hwang. “I share with a lot of young people this strong sense of individual freedom – it matters! And this time it shows.”
Foreigners have mixed feelings. “I think the government wants to use this moment to create an opportunity for a breakthrough with North Korea,” said Overby, who returned to Korea for the Games, 30 years after her first visit. “Is that going to create stress in the Korea-US alliance? That is very possible.”
While South Koreans freely debate the presence of North Koreans, the real revelation should be for the visitors – who, for all their swagger, may have to swallow some pride. “In 1988, the South Korean attitude was ‘Up yours, North Korea – we are the real Korea!’” said Breen. “So in 1988 North Korea did not come, but now they are coming as a global pariah invited by an advanced nation.”
Comparing ‘88 and ’18 visitors note small changes on the ground. “In ‘88, you could buy the same bags athletes were given and what they were wearing, though I am not sure about the intellectual property back then,” laughed Overby, referring to Korea’s formerly notorious reputation for knock-offs. “Now, the IP is good, but you can’t find anything!”
But given the broader and deeper changes in Korean society, comments by the 1988 and 2018 volunteer, Choi, seem quaintly – and perhaps poignantly – old-fashioned. “This is my last chance to volunteer to serve my country,” said the retiree. “It is my honor.”
The Korean people (if one is aware of there great history) are smart, tough, brave, and have a infectious spirit————–South Korea has arrived today on the "Grand Stage" because of there people and a CULTURE that helps to push them forward———–the Olympics are just the desert to a country (and basically with no outside help) that have risen from the ashes of 1909, 1945 and 1950!
The Koreans, both from the North and the South, have one objective: to reunify their country which has been separated for 70 years due to invasion by American soldiers.
In order to achieve their objective, the Koreans must kick all American soldiers out of Korea, like the Vietnamese were able to reunify their country after they had kicked all American soldiers out of Vietnam in 1975.
The World – minus the American aggressors, invaders and murderers- is supporting the Koreans in their mission. It is hoped that the American invaders and murderers will see by themselves the futility of maintaining their military occupation of the south part of Korea and that they will remove all their soldiers and their military equipment out of Korea. The sooner USA removes all its soldiers out of Korea, the better it will be for Korea, for USA and for the World.
Great piece, Andrew
Both Koreas do not want war. Japan does not want war. Go home Yankees!
True. However, there was a tremendous level of outside help. The only large United Nations effort at stopping agression was the Korean War. That is a very significant "outside help" to keep South Korea from falling under the Chinese/North Korean occupation.
Economic aid was extremely large from other nations beginning in the mid 1960s. The World Bank, US, Japan, and others invested and provided multi billion dollar aid programs during this period. Further, even as late at the 1990s as the article points out, there was international assistance to rid the Chaebol system of much of it’s dead weight. So while there is reason to be proud, to exclude the international partnerships that did indeed assist South Korea during the post war era is not correct.
Your post contradicts itself. India and China frequently have armed engagements over the disputed border region, as China continues the agressive campaign of gaining more territory from India (and almost all it’s neighbors) expense.
So China is for peace and India is for peace is contradictory when they frequently must go into conflict over the border. China has invaded and occupied multiple nations over the years, to include Vietnam in the late 1970s early 1980s.
Perhaps you can discuss how the current talk of war between North Korea and South Korea/USA came about? It wasn’t from any of the nations you listed above "wanting war". I look forward to your answer.
There is alot of emotional invective in your post but unfortunately little by way of facts.
The historical record is very clear on agression. North Korea, at the behest of the illegal CCP government invaded the sovereign state of South Korea. The record of crimes against civilians by the North Korean army is well documented. This set the stage for years of mistrust between South Koreans and North Koreans, which only recently has begun to fade along with the memories of many South Koreans as to Chinese communist (neo fascist really) and North Korean atrocities and war crimes.
Unification is something that everyone wants, but not one that places a murderous , internationaly criminal neo fascist regime like North Korea over the very successfull and indipendent South Koreans. Unification must be achieved on terms that prevent human suffering and widespread criminality in the merger. North Korea has proven agian and again incapable of civilized behavior and ability to follow international law. The Chinese, who instigate much of the instability via her leading role in the Shanghai Cooperative Organiztion (SCO) which North Korea is a partner in, tends to facilitate the criminal actions of North Korea (and of course her own violation of UNCLOS in the illegal claims against other soverign nations in the region). So everyone wants re-unification, it just has to be done so that the dictator Kim and his puppet master Xi don’t take the lives and freedom of South Koreans in the process.
In fact, unification is easy. Kim simply declares his government wishes to be incorporated into South Korea, dissolves his army, turns all the budget away from guns into plowshares to feed his starving prisoners (population) and re-unification will happen very quickly. South Korean led unification is easily the most responsible and safest way for all Koreans. But the warmonger Kim would rather swing sword than talk peace.
Again a lot of rhetoric but little in the way of facts in your response.
You failed or purposely avoided the question regarding where the current talk of war on the Korean peninsula came from.
Again, perhaps you can try to answer that and in so doing will "Shine the light" as you put it on the real truth of who wants war.
I’ll give you another shot.
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Of course the North and South Korea divide is similar to what was the North and South Vietnam divide. And of course the continuing U.S. presence in South Korea is based on the same reason that United States went to war with North Vietnam i.e. the United States’s view that communism poses a threat to, for want of better word, Western democracy. What we have, put in simple terms, is ideological warfare. I am not sure whether if the U.S. forces were to leave, as suggested by your protagonist, the two Koreas could unite peacefully instead of going to war. Then again one should be open a propos to a possibility that if the Korean people of Nirth and South want to unite as one Korea peace might be attained, according to mathematical ‘Game Theory’ if any ‘foreign’ ‘fuel’ or ‘triggers’ of conflict are first removed. Maybe we could first substitute the U.S. forces with United Nations forces as peacekeepers and observers in both North and South Korea. Additionally have a U.N. Commissioner for Reunification established to broker a gradual framework towards reunification through or based on joint non-ideological economic and financial and cultural and educational pathways with Korean characteristics, what the Korean people have as common customary values as an ethnic group that they jointly share, believe and are proud of.
Good food for thought on whether the North and South aside from ethnic affiliation would even be able or willing to unify. It runs the risk of other neo Fascist "unification of race" /blood and soil problems when that becomes a driving ideology. Germany in the 1930s being the most known but certainly Pol Pot and Chinese Han ranking up there with why that is problematic.
The UN was very much involved early on in the Korean division and later conflict… The nascent leaders of the future UN (USSR, US, UK, KMT China) were involved in the decision to split occupation of the Korean pennensula at the end of WWII. (Although to be fair the KMT wanted full occupation under KMT forces along with Manchuria it went to the US and USSR).
I would however have to disagree with the characterization that there is a parallel between Vietnam and Korea. Vietnam was split as a result of France ceding the North as part of the peace agreement. The US becoming involved under mostly the Kennedy administration after the French overtly withdrew to keep the Southern government viable.
Korea was not a prime focus of the US and General Hodges and Marshalls notes on the matter are clear that the US initially was set on a Korean wide election, however Soviet and CCP use of the Northern forces to attempt to impose itself on the South then interfered with the original intent, and lines were drawn. The aggression initiated by the North with clear backing from the Russian and Chinese then made the United Nations response and US entrenchment necessary.
Its interesting to see how much groups not only affiliated with the North Korean dictatorship but the CCP by way of Confucius Institutes globally try to whitewash and change the historical record in order to change the views on political dynamics in Korea.
Your euphemism of "outside help" resulted in millions of casualties from US indiscriminately dropping half a million tons of bombs, napalm and chemical weapons on civilian populations.
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