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A tale of two Olympics

The 1988 Olympics boasted the largest-ever number of participating countries.
Jan 15,2018
President Moon Jae-in made the most of the windfall called the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. His détente policy, which had been ridiculed and discredited at home and abroad, has suddenly gained respect after he drew high-ranking North Korean officials to the dialogue table and an agreement from Pyongyang to send a delegation of athletes and cheerleaders to the upcoming Olympics. He drew “100 percent” support from cynical U.S. President Donald Trump. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who cold-shouldered Moon on a recent visit to Beijing, also gave his blessing, saying he wished South Koreans would net a big fish (North Korea) through the momentum of the Olympics. The Olympics, which is coming to South Korea for the first time since the Seoul summer games of 1988, have put some wind in Moon’s undeniably flaccid diplomatic sails.

His aides — formerly dissidents and left-wing activists — are coincidentally from the anti-Olympics generation. They attended college when student protests peaked against the Olympics as a capitalistic symbol isolating their comrades and fellow travelers in the North.
Students are usually blinded by an idealistic vision of unification. They ended up helping the Pyongyang regime, which worked hard to ruin the first major international event held by South Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il flatly turned down Seoul’s invitation to the Games and sent envoys to his socialist allies — the Soviet Union, China, and the Eastern bloc — to lobby against their participation. It carried out a terrorist attack and bombed Korean Air 858 flight in December 1987 that killed 115 passengers and crew to scare the international community from going to the Olympics.

But fortune was on Seoul’s side. The global community was united in its desire to use the 1988 Olympics momentum to end the Cold War divisions that ruined the previous games in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. Moscow and Beijing, which began to open their destabilized economies and societies, defied Pyongyang and sent national teams to Seoul. As a result, the 1988 Olympics became a watershed event to bridge the Cold War gaps and boasted the largest-ever number of participating countries — 160 — from both ideological hemispheres.

On a TV program, former health minister and commentator Rhyu Si-min said the Seoul Olympics were a milestone. Both liberal and conservatives are in agreement that the 1988 Olympics was the biggest achievement of the regimes under military generals-turned Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo.

The anti-government student activist group Jeondaehyeop, however, disapproved. When nothing stopped the Olympics, it demanded the two Koreas co-host the competitions. Then unification minister Lee Hong-koo testified that the idea was never discussed at the government level. Co-hosting was impossible since North Korea did not have a single decent sports stadium. When the Soviets decided to field its largest-ever contingent of 520 athletes to compete in all 24 categories, the Seoul Olympics became complete. Every member from the Communist bloc except for North Korea was present at the Seoul Olympics.

Even after North Koreans gave up, the student body Jeondaehyeop kept rallying for joint hosting. They protested in front of the games venues and vowed to disturb outside sports competitions like marathons. It sent a protest letter to Juan Antonio Samaranch, who headed the International Olympic Committee, rudely accusing him of taking bribes from Seoul’s government to oppose joint hosting.

The public agreed that the students had gone too far and could not be tolerated any longer. People took away banners and picket boards and scolded the protesters for trying to ruin the festival. Even liberal leader Kim Dae-jung indicated his disapproval by not joining their rallying cry. The student organization finally gave in and agreed to refrain from picketing during the Olympics period.

We hear no complaints about the upcoming Olympics from Blue House members, many of whom used to be members of the Jeondaehyeop. They have learned more about North Korea’s ambitions and may have become practical and less idealistic. The PyeongChang Olympics will be held with the full blessing of our people. We expect the Blue House and government officials to treat the North Korean guests with dignity and restrained cordiality within the context of the UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 13, Page 26

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kang Chan-ho