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THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 13 : THE REAL STORY : Koreans Save Face After Stolen Mask Is Back in Place

September 29, 1988|TRACY DODDS and SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writers

SEOUL — Back in its rightful place on the wall at J.J. Mahoney's, the upscale bar in the Hyatt Hotel here, the decorative mask stares in stony silence as the story of its fateful trip to one of the hot spots of Itaewon is told one more time.

The mask was taken from the wall at closing time, in the wee hours of Saturday morning by U.S. swimmer Troy Dalbey, who wrapped it in the jacket of former swimmer Glen Mangum, carried it past Olympic security guards at the front door and took it for a cab ride to the Jazz Hope dinner club. There, the mask was seated at a table for five (U.S. swimmer Doug Gjertsen and a mystery Korean woman also were there) and toasted as the guest of honor throughout the late-night meal.

Its odyssey becomes a little clouded after that. It might have remained seated at the table at the Jazz Hope until it was found there by Hyatt personnel. It might have been stashed on the disc jockey's stage. It might have been just waiting for a ride back to the Hyatt.

Once Lee Joon Hyuk of the Hyatt staff arrived to claim it, and the Koreans on the scene realized that American Olympians had stolen a valuable item and were going to just walk away smiling, things got ugly.

Something got lost in the translation. There is no word for "prank" in the Korean language.

Names were called. Spit flew. The Military Police came and went. The Seoul Police came and took the Americans away to a temporary lockup in Itaewon and then to the the jail at the Yongsam police station. Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul went to the police station. Ron Rowan, attorney for the United States Olympic Committee, went to the police station.

And a small army of Korean journalists went to the police station.

The swimmers finally were sent back to the Athletes' Village, where they were confined to quarters, to await the sorting out of the whole mess. No charges had been filed against them, but they were told that they could not leave the country until the prosecutor decided whether charges would be filed. As of Thursday evening, they were still waiting.

There was good news for them out of the prosecutor's office Thursday morning, though. You Sung Soo, the prosecutor assigned to the case, said that they would probably be free to go on Friday or Saturday.

After meeting with Dalbey, Mangum and their attorneys (Gjertsen had been excused from the meeting because of his lesser involvement), You told The Times: "We will suspend prosecution, which has the same effect as dropping the case. They will be able to leave after I write my decision paper and after my supervisor inspects it and approves it. That will take a day or two."

Which keeps the swimmers sweating until after NBC has concluded its coverage of the Games.

No American official is about to be quoted on the subject, but there is no doubt that the anti-American sentiment here, brought to a seething peak by what Koreans perceived to be biased coverage by NBC of their boxing officials attacking a New Zealand referee, has stretched what could have been a brief, unfortunate incident into a political standoff.

Under normal circumstances, when the three young men walked out of the police station late last Saturday morning, that would have been the end of it. The Hyatt chose not to press charges. No one claimed to have been physically assaulted by the Americans. And a charge of drunk and disorderly here is almost always handled by the police and not even referred to the prosecutor, according to You.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. The Korean press focused an outraged reaction on the swimmers, always mentioning that NBC showed the boxing fracas time and time again while skipping lightly over the crime committed by the U.S. swimmers.

On Wednesday, a leading South Korean opposition politician added his voice to the rising criticism of Americans after another U.S. athlete was arrested in an altercation with a Korean taxi driver.

Kim Young Sam, president of the Reunification Democratic Party, said conduct by American athletes here have given the Korean people the impression that Americans "ignore the feelings of Koreans or look down upon them."

Citing the undisciplined march into the Olympic Stadium by the U.S. delegation during the opening ceremony Sept. 17 and a series of altercations between Americans and Koreans since then, Kim said "there can be ebbs and flows in friendship," and declared: "We are in an ebb now."

"In the past, incidents (such as the ones that have occurred) would not even have been reported because of our comradeship," said Kim, who finished second in a four-way presidential election last December. "But those days are gone."

South Korea, he predicted, "will emerge from the Olympics as a nation too significant to ignore in the international arena."

"The United States should recognize Korea as an equal partner," he said.

"I don't know why, but Americans seem to be neglecting Korean feelings too much," he said.

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