SEOUL — Thirty-five years ago, Seoul was a city devastated by war. Twice, it had been overrun by North Korean soldiers, bolstered by communist Chinese forces, and, although the invaders retreated both times under attack by United Nations forces, consisting primarily of units from South Korea and the United States, Seoul was left afterward to bury its dead, dig out from underneath the rubble and rebuild.
Ten years later, a U.S. correspondent who has been based in the Far East since 1963 recalled last week, Seoul still had only one building more than 12 stories tall, the area south of the Han River was nothing but rice paddies and mud flats, and there were as many man-powered A-frame carts on the streets as there were automobiles.
Under South Korean President Park Chung Hee, Seoul emerged in the '60s and '70s as an industrial boom town, but the momentum from its rapid economic advancement was halted by inflation and unemployment. Park was assassinated in 1979, and the government was overthrown a year later by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan in a military coup.
Less than a year ago, Chun's Fifth Republic was under siege by students and political opponents, who engaged in violent street demonstrations that attempted to topple the government but probably came closer to inviting martial law. Peace was restored only after democratization of the political process was promised and a new president, Roh Tae-woo, was elected.
Yet, Seoul not only has survived but prospered, and, come Saturday morning--Friday at 5 p.m., PDT--it will begin to demonstrate that to the rest of the world with the Opening Ceremonies of the XXIV Summer Olympics. When the torch above the 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium is lighted, it will be the most joyous moment in Seoul, as well as the nation, since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in 1953.
Seoul's development in the 35 years since is little short of a miracle, the city's rise from the ashes establishing it as the "Phoenix of the East."
Today, it is a city of 10 million people, larger than all but four other cities in the world; of 400 skyscrapers, including Asia's tallest building, the 63-story Daehan Life Insurance Building; of business giants recognized throughout the world, such as Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and Lucky-Goldstar, which have been significant in expanding the gross national product from $3 billion in 1965 to $145 billion this year. Economic analysts predict that South Korea soon will cross the line from a debtor to a creditor nation.
With the economy's revitalization have come the attendant problems--pollution, traffic congestion and overcrowded living conditions.
But, in anticipation of a worldwide audience focusing on Seoul during the Olympics, the government moved to meet some of the more pressing needs. For example, the Han River, which for years was useful primarily as an industrial dump, has been decontaminated to the extent that it now is available for recreational pursuits.
"One day I was reborn seeing the Han River," said Park Seh Jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC). "It's so beautiful."
The government financed that and other projects, including the expansion of a subway system, highway renovation and the construction of an international airport terminal, at a cost of $1.4 billion, almost half of the $3.1 billion that has been invested in the Olympics.
That covers the construction of the $180-million Seoul Sports Complex, for which ground was broken before the city was awarded the Games in 1981, and the $300-million Olympic Park, both of which rose out of the rice paddies and mud flats south of the river.
So eager was SLOOC to please that when international swimming officials complained that the Seoul Sports Complex indoor swimming pool, which was completed in 1980 at a cost of $6.4 million, had too few seats for spectators, another indoor pool, which cost $16 million, was built at the Olympic Park. That pool will be used for swimming. The original one will be used for water polo and diving competitions.
Upon inspecting the magnificent stadiums last week, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said that Seoul has the best sports facilities ever constructed for the Games.
Those facilities will be used by more than 12,000 athletes from 161 countries, several of which, including the Soviet Union and China, do not have diplomatic relations with South Korea. Government officials say that they already have noticed a new geniality in relations with those countries as a result of the Olympics and anticipate that it will continue, if not politically then at least economically.