In few nations has history accelerated as swiftly as in South Korea: In the span of a lifetime, it has transformed from a war-torn wasteland in 1953, through industrial powerhouse and infant democracy, to 2018’s hi-tech heart of Asian cool.

Over the last three decades, that racing history has been milestoned by three great sporting events: The 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and now, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The changes have been so vast that an Olympic volunteer in Seoul 1988, who is volunteering once again at Pyeongchang 2018, was barely able to verbalize them. ”In my experience, the difference is the infrastructure,” said Choi, Sang-hwan, a 73-year-old retiree. “I used to bring water in jars and cups – now we have water bottles! In every single way, there is a huge difference.”

Via the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Korea remade its prior image as a land of war and violent protest by flexing newly acquired industrial muscle, brandishing glittering new infrastructure and flaunting an infant democracy. But it was rough around the edges; A stern-faced, unsophisticated country, with significant traces of authoritarianism.

The 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup presented a cheerier image. Korean was funky, youthful and high-tech, home to surging global brands and the nascent “Korean Wave.” In contrast to the “top-down” management of 1988, 2002 was energized by a “bottom-up” public spirit that ignited a spontaneous street festival which charmed the world.

2018’s Korea is the world’s 11th largest economy and a globalizing society. National branding initiatives are muted: If anything, these Games seem more about North Korea than South. Public sentiment verges on indifference: There is a “been there, done that” attitude. Perhaps South Korea has matured to the point where it no longer needs to chase the global limelight so frantically.

Yet, North Korea’s presence in Pyeongchang – Pyongyang’s team was absent in both 1988 and 2002 – exemplifies South Korea’s last and possibly greatest national challenge: To somehow hurdle immense political, ideological and strategic barriers to reconcile – and ultimately, re-unite – with its estranged, dangerous and alien northern neighbor.

1988 Summer Olympics: The ‘coming out’ party

In 1987, South Korea won full democracy: “People power” protests that year capped a decade of demonstrations against authoritarian governance. But while politically oppressive, the military dictatorships that ruled from 1961-1987 had industrialized with tremendous success. By 1988, the country was an export powerhouse; its “economic warriors” were selling steel, petrochemicals, autos, ships and electronic components worldwide.

The national mission was to stamp this transformed nation onto the global mind-map. “The message to the world was, ‘There’s a country called Korea,’” recalled Hwang Doo-jin, then a conscript soldier, today one of Korea’s most famed architects. “Those who knew Korea knew the Korean War and bad political issues – there was nothing positive about Korea at the time. The entire country thought we had to show that we exist as a member of the free world.”

Visitors, anticipating third-world poverty, were astonished by the development. “I knew nothing about Korea, just MASH,” said American Tami Overby, then a tourist, referring to the US TV series set in wartime Korea. “Then, going from Gimpo Airport, I see all these high rise apartments – holy smokes!”

Equally impressive was the national spirt. “Seeing an entire nation mobilize with one goal was phenomenal – be it a taxi driver or a woman who cleaned restrooms,” continued Overby, who would stay for 21 years, becoming head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea and subsequently, Senior Vice President for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington. “They took on the Olympics to put a positive face of Korea to the world.”

Games management was superb. The iconic spectacle was hundreds of taekwondo players performing in synch at the opening ceremony: A fitting symbol for an aggressive, rising – and still-militaristic – nation. There was a fiercely tribal side to ’88 Korea. “Every corner of society was nationalistic,” said Hwang. “We did not care for sports – but if we were in the Olympics, we got excited.”

Meanwhile, wider geopolitical currents were flowing with increasing momentum.

The 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had been marred by Cold War boycotts, and North Korea did its utmost to ensure that its allies did not go to Seoul. In advance of a 1987 meeting of Eastern Bloc countries about attending the Games, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner in the Middle East. All aboard died. “That would have provided a pretext for the Eastern Bloc not to go,” recalled Briton Mike Breen, then a journalist. “But the mood was changing: there was perestroika and glasnost. The Eastern Bloc decided to attend.”

Seoul ’88 would be a key landmark prior to the collapse of European communism. “The thought of communist countries and China coming to South Korea was unheard of – an extraordinary thing to conceive!” Breen, now the head of a PR firm and a noted author, continued. “When the Chinese entered the stadium they got an enormous welcome from the Koreans, and this made a big impact.”

Post-Games, diplomatic ties were swiftly established between Seoul and Eastern Bloc nations.

North Korea, which did not attend, had missed the bus, while South Korea had impressed the world. “The symbolism for the South Koreans was a global acknowledgment of their ascendency over North Korea,” said Breen. Even Koreans were impressed by their achievement. “We had reached a certain level of maturity and prosperity, and that was a very, very new feeling,” said Hwang. “All through my youth and college, I was telling myself that I belonged to a very poor country.”

2002 World Cup: Joy – unfettered and  unplanned

When Korea jointly hosted the World Cup with Japan, 14 short years later, the country was a different place. Post democratization, Korea issued passports, granting citizens the freedom to travel. The expatriate population soared and Korea was beginning to globalize, while a “Korea Wave” wave of pop culture was starting to wash through Japan and China.

South Korean soccer fans celebrate in Seoul on May 31 2003 after their national team defeated Japan at Tokyo's National Stadium, to commemorate the anniversary of both countries co-hosting the 2002 World Cup finals. Photo: AFP/Choi Jae-ku
South Korean soccer fans celebrate in Seoul on May 31, 2003 after their national team defeated Japan at Tokyo’s National Stadium, to commemorate the anniversary of both countries co-hosting the 2002 World Cup finals. Photo: AFP/Choi Jae-ku

Korea had emerged – with flying colors – from the IMF bailout of the 1997-8 Asian economic crisis. While some conglomerates, notably Daewoo, had collapsed, survivors such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG, were stronger than ever. Moreover, having been forced to divest non-core assets, they had upgraded from commodity players to global brands: Samsung in electronics and ships; Hyundai in autos and ships; LG in electronics. A high-tech revolution – Korea embraced the advanced CDMA mobile telecoms standard, and seeded itself with broadband Internet – had added a second string to the metal-bashing industries of yore. And a long-closed market had opened to foreign goods and services.

“In a sense, the recovery from crisis before the World Cup gave people pride and consolation,” said Kim Sang-hun, at the time a corporate lawyer, who later became become CEO of Naver, one of Korea’s leading Internet enterprises. “There had been five years of economic hardships.”

The football kicked off. To the surprise of the world – not least, Koreans themselves – the national squad did better than ever (and much better than arch-rival and co-host Japan). In response, something remarkable happened. The national cheering squad, the “Red Devils” flooded city centers to watch matches on giant screens in their hundreds of thousands. The massive crowds recalled the “people power” pro-democracy protests of 1987 – but this time, they were happy.

Most remarkably, this gigantic street party was unplanned.

“In 1988, the whole thing was staged, we were simply following orders,” said Hwang. “In 2002 nobody told us what to do, we did what we wanted, it was spontaneous.” And the aggressive nationalism of ‘88 was absent. “The interest shifted from proving ourselves to the world and winning, to enjoyment of the game, having a good time and sharing this general feeling of being happy, prosperous and free,” Hwang, who remembering high-fiving strangers in the street, recalled.

National self-confidence had soared. “In 1988, we did not enjoy it, we were very nervous about whether we could do it or not,” said Kim. “But 2002 was a really happy moment: People enjoyed the events and weren’t worrying about how we could run it properly.”

Still, there were fears. Anti-Americanism, sparked by the death of two schoolchildren in a road accident with US troops, who had legal immunity, had flared. Overby attended the Korea-USA match with the US ambassador. “He said, follow us, follow our security detail, there is a helicopter in the parking lot,” she said. “They had an exit plan.”

In fact, the match was a draw; nothing untoward happened. Anti-American demonstrations would explode after the soldiers were acquitted in a court-martial after the Cup’s conclusion; the downtown crowds recalled the huge cheering squads earlier in the year.

North Korea, absent from the Cup, behaved true to form – deadly form. On the day of Korea’s last match of the tourney, acting with breathtaking cynicism, Pyongyang engineered a naval clash that killed six and wounded 18 South Korean sailors.

Speed Skating - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Training - Gangneung Oval, Gangneung, South Korea - February 7, 2018 Members of the Japanese squad train. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Team speed skaters train at the Gangneung Oval on February 7, 2018 before the opening of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble

Winter Olympics 2018: The “Peace Olympics?”

2018 grants Korea a hat-trick of highly prestigious global sporting events and massively upgrades the transport links to Gangwon, the rugged and under-populated province in which it takes place. But the national mood is subdued.

The public exhortations, giant billboards, signs across roads and banners hanging from downtown buildings seen in 1988 and 2002 are largely absent. The most visible signs of the Games are TV ads, and the ubiquitous Olympic mascots, a bear and a tiger, in public buildings and transport hubs. Moreover, winter sports are not fully globalized: Regions, such as Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are un- or under-represented.

Few Koreans see a mission statement. “I think most Koreans believe that we have been here before – do we need to prove more?” said Hwang. “There is a specter, an eerie feeling, that it was started by government again – it’s ‘back to the future.’”

The news that North Korea, which missed both 1988 and 2002, would attend in 2018 jolted the world and suddenly made Pyeongchang one of the biggest news stories on earth. President Moon Jae-in has rebranded the event – formerly dubbed “Passion, Connected” and “It’s you, Pyeongchang” – “The Peace Olympics,” hoping to create a breathing space in which the two Koreas can talk, and open a more substantial communications channel leading to reconciliation and – perhaps – the distant dream of reunification. With this – and tension reduction in mind – Seoul is enthusiastically enabling Northern participation.

“In 1988, the attitude was ‘Up yours, North Korea – we are the real Korea!’” said Breen. “Now there is a different attitude.”

However, there are social divisions in the South over the generosity offered to North Korea – and this may illustrate the starkest change from 1988 and 2002, when the nation stood united.

“The government has failed to show the people that they are up to dealing with the new awareness among younger Koreans that there is a conflict between nationalism and individualism, between government and citizens,” mused Hwang. “I share with a lot of young people this strong sense of individual freedom – it matters! And this time it shows.”

Foreigners have mixed feelings. “I think the government wants to use this moment to create an opportunity for a breakthrough with North Korea,” said Overby, who returned to Korea for the Games, 30 years after her first visit. “Is that going to create stress in the Korea-US alliance? That is very possible.”

While South Koreans freely debate the presence of North Koreans, the real revelation should be for the visitors – who, for all their swagger, may have to swallow some pride. “In 1988, the South Korean attitude was ‘Up yours, North Korea – we are the real Korea!’” said Breen. “So in 1988 North Korea did not come, but now they are coming as a global pariah invited by an advanced nation.”

Comparing ‘88 and ’18 visitors note small changes on the ground. “In ‘88, you could buy the same bags athletes were given and what they were wearing, though I am not sure about the intellectual property back then,” laughed Overby, referring to Korea’s formerly notorious reputation for knock-offs. “Now, the IP is good, but you can’t find anything!”

But given the broader and deeper changes in Korean society, comments by the 1988 and 2018 volunteer, Choi, seem quaintly – and perhaps poignantly – old-fashioned. “This is my last chance to volunteer to serve my country,” said the retiree. “It is my honor.”