Olympic Do-Over: How Olympic Redevelopment Erased South Korea’s Past, Twice

South Korea has twice hosted the Olympic Games and each time the national government has used redevelopment for the Games to erase its past, mediate tensions in the present, and materialize a new future. It did this in 1988 with the Summer Olympics in Seoul, and it has been taking a similar approach with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Kangwŏn Province. As the South Korean government repeats a history of erasure and development in the present, collaborative housing, rural renewal, and agricultural projects in Kangwŏn remind us that there are better—and perhaps more lasting—ways to bring economic, social, and cultural vitality to a region.

Erasing the Past in 1988

In the years leading to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Chun Doo-Hwan, the authoritarian president of South Korea in the early 1980s, envisioned the Summer Olympics as a way to show the world that South Korea had become a prosperous, “modern” country equal to those in the West. At the time, Chun faced pressure domestically from a growing pro-democracy movement. He and his supporters also envisioned the Olympics as a way to draw national attention away from Chun’s authoritarian rule.

Winning the bid in 1981, Chun and his supporters pushed forward despite strident opposition to their redevelopment plans for Seoul. Some of the most notable city beautification projects included re-landscaping the Han River, building several new subway lines, and constructing the Olympic Stadium and new housing for athletes. In the process, Chun’s government removed or remade large portions of the city’s natural and built environment. Historic buildings, neighborhoods, and natural features were erased to make way for the modern future envisioned by Chun and his supporters.

A picture showing the Olympic Bridge crossing the Han River in Seoul, South Korea.

The Olympic Bridge crossing the Han River in Seoul, one of many large-scale projects begun in anticipation of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This process of erasure was often violent, as Sukjong Hong and others have explained. Residents of poorer neighborhoods, for instance, were forcibly removed from their homes to make way for new construction. The government outsourced such “relocation” projects to private companies who used armed thugs and gang members to attack residents and force them to comply with eviction notices. In demolishing 48,000 homes, Chun’s government forced 720,000 people to relocate to other parts of Korea. Additionally, under a “purification campaign,” 16,000 unattended children, disabled people, panhandlers, homeless people, and political dissidents were removed from the city streets and locked in institutions.

In Seoul’s Shadow

With the 1988 Olympics, South Korean government officials and business leaders argued that the country had achieved the dream of entering the top echelon of nation-states. In reality, however, Seoul was the only part of South Korea with access to the more prosperous future created by the Games. The outcome of the government’s dream of solidifying national prosperity through the Olympics was far from uniform.

To host the 1988 Olympics, Chun’s government mobilized precious capital and resources to develop Seoul, resources not available to other parts of the country. As government and business leaders concentrated the country’s wealth within the capital city, redeveloping Seoul to take its place on the international stage as host for the Olympics, other regions in South Korea had fewer and fewer opportunities for similar development projects. In the process, Seoul sucked resources and people from other regions, draining the provinces of capital and manpower. Seoul drew South Koreans from other regions because the city was perceived not only as the foremost Korean city but also as a leading global city—precisely the impression Chun hoped to establish through the 1988 Olympics.

Three decades after the 1988 Olympics, nearly half of the country’s population resides in Seoul.

Today, three decades after the 1988 Olympics, nearly half of the country’s population resides in Seoul, and it is the political, economic, and cultural capital of South Korea. With the headquarters of Samsung, Hyundai and LG, Seoul is known globally as a cosmopolitan city, the center of K-Pop, Korean dramas and films, and the leader in Korean cuisine and design. Foreign shows and documentaries feature Seoul and its culture as the representative of South Korean culture.

But Seoul is not the only city or cultural capital in South Korea. As the tenth largest economy in the world, Korea is also home to Pusan, Incheon, and Kwangju, cities with vibrant economies and cultural life that, outside of Seoul’s shadow, would compare favorably to other global cities. Yet, these cities cannot compete with Seoul economically, politically, and culturally—not with Seoul’s high concentration of capital, people, and resources. Though uneven development existed before the Olympics, this division between Seoul and the rest of the country was exaggerated by the investments made in the 1988 Olympic Games.

The Uneven Present

The unevenness of South Korean development is never more apparent than in the differences between Seoul and the rural areas where the current Olympics take place. Pyeongchang is located in Kangwŏn Province, an area that has been under severe economic strain since the 1980s.

Kangwŏn Province was the center of Korea’s coal mining industry. The Samcheok Coal Field in southeastern Kangwŏn Province once supplied nearly 65% of the country’s total domestic coal production. When mines closed under the 1980’s Coal Industrial Rationalization Policy, the economy of Kangwŏn declined dramatically. In addition to the continuing loss of mining jobs, coal production fundamentally reshaped the natural environment of the region, and the streams, creeks and other bodies of water in the province are now heavily polluted.

Picture showing men wearing helmets on a train at the entrance to a coal mine.

South Korean miners at the entrance to a Kangwŏn Province coal mine. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to the failing coal industry, farming communities in the region have also suffered since the 1980s. For example, residents of the kibbutz-style agricultural collectives along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) began reclaiming the war-ravaged landscape in the 1960s and eventually built working farms near the border, as Eleana J. Kim explains. This was no small accomplishment, since farmers often suffered massive wounds or died from landmines planted by South Korean and American troops. However, when the national government reneged on a promise to repay the farmers’ labor with land ownership, members of farming collectives became permanent tenant farmers. With the decline of the agricultural industry in South Korea overall, farming communities across Kangwŏn, especially along the border, grew even more precarious and depopulated.

Since the 1980s, national and local leaders have tried to revive the province through new forms of industry, especially tourism. Kangwŏn’s beautiful landscape and the famous Mount Taebaek have made it a major domestic tourist attraction for outdoor activities, such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding, and visiting Buddhist temples. Tourism, however, cannot compensate for the loss of domestic coal production or failing agricultural markets, and the region continues to struggle despite these efforts.

This is the context for South Korean’s 2018 Olympic aspirations for Kangwŏn province. Residents of the province yearn for the Olympics to spark economic recovery, while national and business leaders dream of overcoming unevenness and thus proving that all of South Korea has access to the prosperity visible in Seoul.

Image showing fall foliage over a creek at Chiaksan National Park in Kangwan Province, South Korea.

Kangwŏn’s national parks, including Chiaksan pictured above, have helped drive the provincial tourist economy. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Second Chances

Aggressively bidding to host the Olympics twice before, in 2011 Pyeongchang finally won the contest to host the 2018 Games. Throughout the bidding processes, national leaders stressed that winning the bid to hold the Games would start a process of economic development to raise the fortunes of the region and the living standards of its residents.

In many ways, the previous Olympics became a model for the present Games.

In many ways, the previous Olympics became a model for the present Games. For example, with the new Games, the government has promised that a more prosperous Kangwŏn would join Seoul on the international stage. To pull the region up to that stage of development, politicians assured voters that they would deliver $20 billion in investments that would create 230,000 jobs for the region. Like in the early 1980s, between 2011 and the present South Koreans have spoken about the Olympics as bringing even more economic prosperity and prestige to the country.

Unlike the previous Olympics, where the human inhabitants of Seoul’s streets and poor neighborhoods were the primary targets of redevelopment, in Kangwŏn, the natural environment has become the main object of transformation. The most devastating environmental consequence of realizing the new Kangwŏn has been the construction of a new ski area over protected forests on the slopes of Mt. Gariwangsan. The deforestation of the area caused an uproar because the forest has been one of the most important and oldest woodlands in South Korea. Here, the past that was embodied in elements of the natural environment, like a protected woodland, was erased to make way for an Olympic future. Rather than relying on the Olympic Games to bring renewal to this rural region, there are better and more lasting models to follow.

The Value of Focusing on the Present

The enormous redevelopment projects required to host the Olympics invite host countries to overlook potentially more effective efforts that address present realities. In Kangwŏn Province, local projects have pursued avenues of social and economic renewal that incorporated the past as well as the pre-existing in order to create new futures in the present.

For instance, Chu Dae-Kwan, a well-known architect, initiated a project that redesigns run-down homes for farming communities in the region. Starting in 1999, Chu and other socially minded architects formed the Cholam Project Team for Architecture and Urbanism (CPT) and began renovating the homes of impoverished elderly people. The architects and their students used the renovations as a time to imagine new housing typologies that better meet the needs of elderly and rural residents. Recognizing that remodeling homes was not enough on its own to help communities combat poverty, Chu also helped create new schools, social initiatives, and other programs to draw urban inhabitants back to the region. 

As another example, cooperatives in Kangwŏn Province, such as the agricultural collective at Hansalim, have revived rural areas through economically successful agricultural projects. Having its roots in Wŏnju where various types of cooperatives formed to give relief to natural disasters and economic and social problems in the 1970s, Hansalim started as an agricultural cooperative in 1986. Supporting organic farming, Hansalim has built a thriving business model that connects rural farmers to urban consumers through their cooperative stores throughout the country.

Recent history has already shown that the Olympic Games do not necessarily lead to improvements in the economies of host cities immediately after the event. Instead, they have more often left their hosts with exorbitant debt, empty stadiums, and unused buildings. It is too early to say if the Olympics will bring prosperity to Kangwŏn, but, given this legacy, it is a shame that the South Korean government has chosen the Olympics as the tool to redevelop Kangwŏn Province when there already exist successful projects to address these concerns in potentially more effective ways.

The mascots for the 2018 Winter Games, a white tiger, and the Paralympics, a black bear, welcome visitors outside one of the events.

The mascots for both the 2018 Winter Games and the Paralympics welcome visitors outside one of the events. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Athletes lighting the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony for the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Albert L. Park is Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College as well as Co-Principal Investigator of EnviroLab Asia at the Claremont Colleges. As a historian of modern Korea and East Asia, his current research project focuses on the roots of environmentalism in modern Korean history and its relationship to locality and local autonomy. He is the author of Building a Heaven on Earth: Religion, Activism and Protest in Japanese Occupied Korea (University of Hawaii Press, 2015) and is the co-editor of Encountering Modernity: Christianity in East Asia and Asian America (University of Hawaii Press, 2014). WebsiteContact.

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