The 10th quadrennial Asian Games had long been considered a kind of mammoth dress rehearsal for South Korea's production of the biggest show on earth, the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. But last week, by the time some 5,000 athletes and officials from 27 Asian nations as wildly diverse as Iran and Indonesia had arrived in rain-soaked Seoul for opening ceremonies, the rehearsal had come to be fraught with all the tumult and tension of the main event.
The tumult came mainly from a rhapsodic citizenry—41 million South Koreans, all turned into drum-beating boosters and starry-eyed patriots, so proud of their country that they could scarcely stop grinning. Korea was known for centuries as the Hermit Kingdom. Now this former backwater, which for most of the last 100 years had been stepped on like a bug by its big-footed neighbors, China and Japan, had the chance to play the magnanimous host at a glittering sports event that included both of those conquerors. It was a dream almost too good to be true.
Yet behind the notes of national pride and triumph lay tension. And it would not go away. Indeed, it hadn't gone away since September 1981, when South Korea was awarded the '88 Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee. At the time, the Koreans themselves were stunned that they had won over Nagoya, Japan, the only other city competing; they had considered their bid a sort of symbolic hat in the ring in preparation for a "real" bid that would be made sometime in the future. Those outside the Olympic movement were stunned for a different reason: They couldn't believe that the IOC had chosen this volatile little country with a recent history that included violent domestic politics as well as a still smoldering war with their enemy-brothers north of the 38th parallel. Bluntly speaking, they couldn't believe that South Korea could remain at peace long enough to get an Olympics off the ground.
Six days before the 16-day-long Asian Games were to begin in Seoul, just 30 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that was established in 1953 to separate North and South Korea, those fears seemed justified. At 3:12 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14, a bomb exploded in a steel trash can just outside the crowded international arrivals terminal at the city's Kimpo International Airport. The bomb sent chunks of cement, steel fragments from the can and slivers of glass from seven large double-plated windows scything into a throng of travelers. Five people died on the spot and 31 were injured. The place became a living nightmare, the floor slippery with blood, bodies of the dead and wounded sprawled amid rubble and shards of broken glass. The bomb went off near an entrance reserved for South Koreans, and no athlete or official connected with the Asian Games was in the vicinity. Yet the assumption was that this act of terrorism had been perpetrated for the purpose of disrupting the competition and embarrassing both the Korean Olympic organizers and the government of president Chun Doo Hwan.
To preserve the image of business as usual for arriving Games competitors, authorities feverishly worked to clean up the bombed area. Within hours of the explosion the floors were spotless, a cement wall had been repaired and new panes of glass had been installed in all the broken windows. In the days that followed, the chief administrator and the head of security at the airport were sacked, 6,000 homes near the airport were inspected by police for signs of terrorists, and dozens of suspects were arrested—including 37 hapless Japanese who were picked up the night after the bombing because they seemed "suspiciously eager" to get on a plane and leave the country.
Despite all such activity the prime suspect was never in doubt in the minds of the police and most of the people of South Korea. Kang Min Chang, the director general of the 100,000-man national police force, said it unequivocally at a press conference the day after the atrocity: "We believe that the explosion was the work of North Korea or impure elements."
So far there has been no publicly revealed evidence clearly linking the Kimpo killings with North Korea. That is not to say there isn't sound reason to suspect skulduggery from the North Koreans. They long ago said they would boycott these Asian Games; North Korean President Kim Il-Sung lately labeled them "impure." On the rather silly side, there were broadcasts from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang warning Asian Games participants to think twice about going to Seoul because there supposedly had been 600,000 cases of AIDS reported in South Korea.
But the North Koreans are a serious people, and they are seriously feared in the South. As much to protect their Olympics' future as their Asian Games' present, the South Koreans reacted to the bomb with a massive increase in security. A "Type A emergency" was declared—the same conditions that would prevail if the country were under an immediate threat of a military attack.
Most major universities in Seoul were closed to keep anti-Chun dissidents isolated. More than 40,000 members of the national police force went on duty in Seoul itself. Much was made in the local papers of the fact that the U.S. battleship New Jersey had put in at the port of Inchon, 45 miles from the North Korean border. Though no one in the Reagan Administration said so, the widespread opinion was that the proximity of the ship was an American warning to Pyongyang to keep its hands off the Games.
Nonetheless, tension heightened. At sunset on Friday, the night before the opening ceremonies, soldiers with detectors and dogs completed a meticulous sweep of every nook and corner of the two-year-old Olympic Stadium. Behind the bomb squads, several hundred troops marched in formation into the stadium, and round-the-clock sentries were posted at every entrance. The next afternoon, beneath drizzling skies, a capacity crowd of 100,000 was frisked at least twice by good-natured (although sometimes heavy-handed) guards. Metal detectors at every entrance were set to such a high sensitivity that eyeglasses or a single large key would set off their alarms.