The Pyeongchang Olympics are taking place in a very different South Korea than the one that hosted in 1988, but there are echoes in the story lines. Nearly 30 years ago, mass protests had recently pressured military dictator Chun Doo-hwan to allow the country’s first truly democratic elections to go forward. Today, South Korea is emerging after millions of people rallied in the streets against Park Geun-hye, a corrupt right-wing president impeached last year.
In both cases, many activists who initially opposed the Olympics ended up supporting the Games once they took on a new political meaning. In 1988, many believed that the international spotlight that came with the Olympics would help temper the last excesses of a violent regime. Today, progressives as well as the new president, Moon Jae-in, a former human-rights lawyer, are hoping to use the event to revive ties between North and South Korea. While the Trump administration has repeatedly called for amplified military pressure during the Games, Kim Jong-un surprised onlookers by deciding to send North Korean athletes to Pyeongchang to compete alongside their South Korean counterparts. Without a doubt, the Pyeongchang Games have become Moon’s most public venue for enacting his foreign-policy agenda. But the South Korean president’s overtures to the north have not been without controversy on his domestic political turf.
Heejoon Chung, a sports-science professor at Dong-A University, flagged concerns about the Pyeongchang Olympics for a decade, cautioning that attentive planning would be needed to mitigate the potentially disastrous financial burden of the Games, especially on Gangwon Province. But with the Olympics nearing their end, Chung revisits the past, present, and future of the Pyeongchang Games and explores what the event reveals about South Korea’s left.
Madeleine Han: Last year, you criticized the Pyeongchang Olympics in a Pressian op-ed for placing undue burdens on the country, citing the extravagant funds needed to build and maintain the venues as well as the event’s shortcomings as a tool to rebuild the nation in the wake of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Why did you initially oppose the Olympics, and have your feelings about the Games changed?
Heejoon Chung: My initial opposition was because the city of Pyeongchang in Gangwon Province isn’t hosting the Olympics out of love for or expertise in winter sports as much as it is for local development. You can see that from the way the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the Olympics opted to build new infrastructure, oftentimes at an unnecessarily large scale, rather than utilize preexisting facilities.