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.
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.