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A Strange And Resolute Calm
William Oscar Johnson
June 08, 1987
Despite social unease and political uncertainty, Seoul is confident it can make next year's Olympics a winner
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June 08, 1987

A Strange And Resolute Calm

Despite social unease and political uncertainty, Seoul is confident it can make next year's Olympics a winner

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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.

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 prot�g�—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."

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