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Analysis : There's a Delicate Balance in Seoul With One Year to Go From Games

September 20, 1987|SPENCER SHERMAN | United Press Internatinoal

SEOUL, South Korea — One year before the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Korea is like a young gymnast mounting the balance beam for the first time, nervously poised between triumph and defeat, honor and shame.

Successfully holding the Games has taken on such importance in this rapidly developing nation that they are seen as one of the two most important national goals for 1988, ranked right beside the first popular presidential election in 16 years.

But before the opening ceremonies begin in the Olympic Stadium in southeastern Seoul on Sept. 17, 1988, South Korea will have to clear some of the most serious political hurdles it has faced since the Korean War.

At stake is the promise by Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee President Park Seh-jig to stage "the best Olympics ever." The agenda is ambitious.

By next year, South Korea must rewrite its current constitution, ratify it, hold a presidential election and see President Chun Doo Hwan voluntarily relinquish the power he took by military force seven years ago -- possibly yielding it to opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, Chun's arch-rival.

A delicate balancing act must be carried out in an environment fraught with uncertainty.

Politicians will have to keep radical dissident forces at bay -- checking their drive to overthrow Chun and his military-backed regime. But they also will have to prevent the military from quashing the nation's democratic experiment if South Korea's generals come to feel liberalization has gone too far.

Last June, after three weeks of violent street protests, Chun's government agreed to accept major political reforms. Fear of scuttling the Olympics was a major motivation for the concessions.

Scenes of police hurling tear gas at rock-throwing students and reports that international sporting events were canceled due to tear gas in the air worried sports officials and prompted a flurry of offers from other countries eager to capitalize on the chaos and take over the 1988 Games.

Another major factor in the Games' success is communist North Korea, which is pushing to co-host the event with Seoul, a proposal both South Korea and the International Olympic Committee have rejected.

The IOC has offered a plan for Pyongyang to host a few events, but there is fear the North may try to disrupt the Games if talks break down.

"It is logistically and physically impossible for two cities to host at the same time having opening and closing ceremonies with all the 13,000 Olympic family. It is physically impossible," Seoul Olympics organizer Park said.

Recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage visited Seoul and announced that, if necessary, the United States would dispatch a Navy battle group to South Korean waters to protect the games.

South Korean sports officials also savor the idea of holding the first boycott-free Summer Olympiad since the bloody 1972 Munich Games, which was marred by terrorism.

Teams from many communist countries have been invited to international sports events recently in Seoul as a way of showing off the facilities and rolling out the welcome mat to athletes from communist countries.

Of the Soviet Union, Olympic organizer Park said, "We have every indication that they are more than willing to come to Seoul. Besides there is a prevalent mood in the world that the Seoul Olympics must be a unique opportunity to bring the entire Olympic movement back on track."

South Korean politicians and sports officials say the typical "can do" spirit that brought South Korea to international economic prominence will overcome all obstacles and make the Olympics a success.

"All South Koreans support the Olympics," Park said.

Opposition leaders agree that the prestige of the Olympics is important to the future. Even bitter opponents of the Chun regime point to the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul when an unofficial truce silenced street protests.

Having brought their nation to the brink of industrial success, South Koreans want to show off to the rest of the world their enormous efforts and add Seoul to the list of major international cities, Park said.

"They are achieving success and now they want fame," said one longtime foreign resident of South Korea. "They hope the Olympics will bring it to them like they did to Japan in 1964."

As far as Olympic spirit is concerned, a few random items show South Koreans' growing fervor:

--Olympic souvenirs with the smiling face of "Hodori" -- a cuddly tiger mascot of the games -- have been on sale in Seoul since 1984.

--Giant electronic clocks count the days until the opening ceremony and on Thursday -- with 365 days before the Games open -- television will run a three-hour extravaganza including live coverage as invitations are mailed from IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

--Five thousands volunteers travel to the Olympic Center three times a week to brush up their language skills and newspapers and radio stations run daily English language features with key English phrases. Taxi companies are running competitions among their drivers with prizes awarded to the best English speakers.

--The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs has begun an "Olympics Lifestyle" program to clean up areas around the venues, promote friendliness -- and even stop public spitting.

The spirit of the Olympics games can also be seen on the walls and buildings of the city, already plastered with Olympic signs and logos.

At one of Seoul's first class hotels last weekend a guest got out of a car with his luggage and asked the bell boy when the Olympics begin.

"We're ready to hold them tomorrow," the youth said with a smile.

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