Kim Yong-woon, the mayor of a tiny South Korean farming town, is seen overlooking… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Yongsan, South Korea — When a government-owned ski resort here was recently named the host site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, scores of potato farmers who have worked this land for generations cheered alongside the rest of the nation.
But the celebration banners had been unfurled for only a few days when residents of this rustic mountain town replaced them with protest pennants.
For a decade, the nearest town to the main Olympic venue did its part, they say. Through two previous unsuccessful attempts to woo the Games to Pyeongchang county in South Korea's heartland, residents waged cleanup drives, hosted foreign visitors and played cheerleader.
But soon after South Korea's Olympic triumph, they say, the government instituted a new rule: To discourage speculators, officials have banned most types of land sales here.
Yongsan's 280 residents feel cheated. They say it's their right to sell their property if they choose. Their new banners say the government's rules are "killing villagers."
Mayor Kim Yong-woon, 50, a fifth-generation potato farmer and leader of the mini-uprising, said several older residents might finally decide they've had enough of farming.
"I'm still young, I'm going to be around here a while, but most people are over 65 and in debt," he said. "They have a right to sell their land. The way things are going, everyone's going to benefit from the Olympics but the residents themselves."
Government officials say that with many venues yet to be built, profiteers might descend on the area.
"We're aware that villagers contend this violates their property rights," said Lee Jae-wuk, a county land management officer. "But we want to protect against speculation and massive increases in the price of the land."
Although he said he sympathized with the villagers' position, Lee said the land-sale ban was legal under South Korean law.
The rift highlights long-running tensions between farmers and outsiders in the place known as Keunteo, or Big Land Valley, noted for its bountiful potato harvest and heavy winter snowfall.
In 1972, developers established South Korea's first ski resort here, an event residents say foretold the transformation of the area from the realm of hardworking farmers to a weekend getaway for wealthy Seoul residents who live just a two-hour drive away.
Many farmers sold their land to developers then, wanting to cash in on the nation's growing penchant for downhill skiing.
"They were country people who didn't know what they were doing," Kim said. "They couldn't see into the future."
Today, many residents are uneasy neighbors of the resorts. Some can't even afford a day on the slopes. Instead, they watch as out-of-towners invade each weekend, leaving behind trash and bad feelings, not paying proper respect to the land where residents' ancestors have lived since the mid-1800s.
Villagers say they have learned to accept the invasion, which boosts the local economy. But they chafe at the fact that the regional government has made them feel like second-class citizens in their own town.
Kim is caught in the middle of the turf war. He's a former member of the national ski team who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. He considers the two main ski resorts here his winter playground.
But he's also the civic spokesman for a disenfranchised town. Many say they've been lied to by officials at the Alpensia resort, the main Olympic venue. When building the facility in 2006, resort officials promised jobs for area residents and money for a fund to build a better school. Neither has materialized.
Only a few residents are employed at Alpensia, villagers say. The rest are told they lack experience, even for such entry-level jobs as maid or janitor.
"They fooled us," said Kim, a fit man, tanned from years in the sun. "Maybe their thinking was that these are just farmers and of course they don't know anything. They say all those promises were made by previous bosses and that they weren't in writing. In my book, a spoken promise is still a promise."
An Alpensia representative declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the government's land sale rules have cast a cloud over community commerce.
"I've been sitting in my office doing nothing. There has been no business since the announcement, and it's been really frustrating," said Kim Seong-shik, 65, a real estate agent.
"Don't get me wrong; I'm glad that we'll be hosting the Winter Olympics. But I really do hope they will let civilians' land be free so that the residents can live."
Soon after the government's ruling, Mayor Kim called for a town meeting, where all 78 residents present voted to take down the feel-good banners and put up the feel-bad ones. Since then, two pennants have been stolen.
Kim, who is serving his second three-year term, says he may run for office again to see the battle through. Many residents want to leave the banners up until the Olympics if the matter isn't settled, and some want to protest against Alpensia during the event.
"How will the Olympics help our lives? What's our role here, to sit and clap at the opening ceremony?" Kim said.
"The truth is that the government didn't have a role for us, other than to just step out of the way. We worked for 10 years, and this is what we get?"
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.