The 1988 Olympics in Seoul: A Triumph of Sport and Diplomacy

For the Republic of Korea, the 1980s were a time of domestic political tumult coupled with rapidly improving international attitudes toward the country. The Seoul Olympics (formally the Games of the XXIV Olympiad) became the fulcrum of a major turning point in the modern history of the ROK, both internally and in terms of the ROK’s international stature. This paper outlines some of the main points of that transformation.

Under President Park Chung-hee, Korea had begun its march to economic importance on the world stage, even while Park continued his repressive domestic political measures. To showcase the ROK’s achievements in an unmistakable way, Park decided that Seoul should win the honor of hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, and become the first Asian city to do so since Tokyo in 1964. Park, and probably most Koreans, believed hosting the Olympics would have the same salutary effect on Korea’s international prestige as the 1964 Games had had on Japan’s. After Park’s assassination in October 1979, Chun Doo-hwan usurped power in December but also pursued the Olympic prize with determination and vigor, with major support from private sector Koreans including Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Yong. Prime Minister Lho Shin-yong headed the government side of the two-pronged effort.[1] Their quest played out against a background of further South Korean economic development and continuing domestic political unrest, which was focused on the overwhelming popular desire for democratic reforms.

Chun had crushed the 1980 Kwangju democracy movement with great cruelty, imprisoned pro-democracy leader Kim Dae-jung, and was if anything more authoritarian than Park had been. However, Chun was to find that his desire for sustaining his harsh political grip would conflict with what was needed to host the 1988 Games. Indeed, even after Seoul had defeated Nagoya in the competition in September 1981, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch made clear to ROK officials that the Games could be moved elsewhere if widespread disorders continued in Seoul. That external pressure had a measurable effect on the Chun regime, by restraining its willingness to use excessive force against peaceful demonstrators.[2]

After widespread pro-democracy demonstrations were joined by many in the middle class and with the December 1987 presidential election approaching, on June 29 the ruling party candidate ex-general Roh Tae-woo stunned Korea with an announcement in which he accepted essentially all the opposition’s demands, most especially direct election of the president. This statement made a considerable impact on the domestic situation and led to what has become the norm in the ROK ever since—direct presidential elections every five years.

A major shadow over the Seoul Games was the question of hostile North Korean action either to discourage countries from participating or to disrupt the Games themselves. For the ROK, the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul were in many respects a dress rehearsal for the Olympics. On September 14, just days before the Asian Games opened, a powerful bomb exploded in a trash bin at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport. The blast killed five Koreans and wounded at least 19.[3] Naturally, suspicion for that terrorist attack fell squarely on North Korea, although three months later, the US CIA still termed it “unsolved.”[4]

Worse was to come. The IOC’s Samaranch and the ROK government worked hard to deal with North Korean demands to co-host the entire Olympics. By August 1987, the North Koreans rejected a final IOC compromise offer. The ROK then refused another North-South meeting on co-hosting. Park Seh-jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, commented “by the demonstration that the IOC and South Korea were doing their best to appease North Korea, the USSR and Eastern European countries were granted the option to participate freely in the Seoul Olympics.”[5] The same was true of China, as things developed.

North Korea responded with a carefully planned atrocity. On November 29, 1987, Korean Air flight 858, whose passengers were mainly Korean workers returning to Seoul from the Middle East, exploded over the Andaman Sea south of Burma. All 115 aboard were killed as the 707 broke apart in midair. The North Koreans expected that their involvement would remain secret and would be just one step in a series of attacks designed to cause many countries to stay away from the Olympics. The two North Korean operatives who planted the bomb were captured in Bahrain, and one, Kim Hyun Hui, failed in her suicide attempt. She was soon flown to Seoul where she eventually confessed in great detail to the North Korean plan and her part in it. She was sentenced to death but pardoned by President Roh Tae-woo on the grounds that she had been thoroughly brainwashed in the North Korean system.[6] Kim still lives in the South under tight ROKG security measures. There is no evidence that the terrorist act dissuaded anyone from participating in the Seoul Games. It did, however, cause the US to put the DPRK on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

With the Olympics in the offing, the Roh administration began a final push to open diplomatic relations with as many of North Korea’s supporters as possible. The idea of Nordpolitik or “Northern Policy” had its origins in an announcement by Foreign Minister Lee Bum-suk, a few months before he was killed in the October 1983 Rangoon bombing.[7]

On July 7, Roh Tae Woo announced Nordpolitik in a major speech, aimed at “my 60 million compatriots,” including the North Koreans. He offered proposals for improving North-South relations and even said the South would help the North improve contacts with the US and Japan. On a more immediate and practical plane, Roh continued “we will continue to seek improved relations with the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries.”[8]

In August, Hungary led the way among the DPRK’s ostensible friends in the Eastern bloc by opening “official” relations with the ROK, initially at the counselor level. The North Koreans declared the Hungarian ambassador persona non grata and ordered him out in 72 hours. He was never replaced. The Korea Times described the situation when commemorating the 20th anniversary of establishing relations: “Once the diplomatic relationship was announced, Hungary was left to face North Korea’s reaction. The ambassador … was one of the few people who felt the North Korean response directly. He described it as ‘harsh’. ‘They (the North Koreans) called it an act of betrayal.’” [9] No less infuriating to Pyongyang was the fact that Kim Pyong Il, Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, had just arrived in Budapest as ambassador. He was quickly moved to Sofia, but when Bulgaria soon opened relations with Seoul, he was moved yet again to Warsaw, as something of a diplomatic nomad. In February 1989, Hungary moved to full diplomatic relations by posting an ambassador in Seoul. Sandor Etre was a Kim Il Sung University alumnus and a former ambassador to Pyongyang.

The opening ceremony for the Games of the XXIV Olympiad was held on the afternoon of September 17, 1988, incidentally the last time an opening ceremony would be held in daylight. In an emotional moment for all South Koreans, Sohn Kee-chung carried the Olympic torch into Jamsil Stadium. Sohn had won the marathon in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but the Japanese colonizers had forced him to run under a Japanese name and under the Japanese flag.[10]

A much less happy aspect of the Seoul Games was the strong current of anti-Americanism (many Koreans prefer the expression “anti-American sentiment”) that ran through the Games. That this was possible stemmed from the generally greater freedom of expression under President Roh Tae-woo than had been possible under Park or Chun.

Korean anxiety about absolute perfection in the conduct of the Games, and the way Korea and Koreans were perceived in other countries, played a role in what transpired from the outset. Following the opening ceremony, the US team came under withering criticism since they had entered the stadium in a disorganized fashion, waving at the cameras and generally acting in a light-hearted way, as many probably did in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Korean news media highlighted this behavior as disrespectful to Korea and Koreans, which put the public on alert to watch for more reasons to complain about American behavior.

Within days, a minor incident was blown far out of proportion. On the first Friday of the Games, an American men’s swimming team had set a record in the 800-meter relay, and some from the team later went to the Seoul Hyatt to celebrate. In a juvenile prank as they left the hotel, one young man took a plaster lion’s head from the bar’s wall.[11] The hotel staff immediately contacted the police, who then alerted the Korean media. The ensuing public uproar was astonishing. The author was one of several US diplomats in the embassy on the following day, a Saturday, as the phones were “ringing off the hooks,” with angry Koreans expressing their fury at this transgression. One man raged in English “How could they do such a thing?” When the author responded that the boys were drunk, the man said “What?” “They were drunk.” He said “Oh” and hung up. The American athletes were soon flown out of Kimpo in the glare of hostile media coverage.

In addition to covering the sporting events themselves, NBC Sports broadcast brief vignettes showcasing to the US audience numerous aspects of Korean history, the city of Seoul, the ROK’s amazing economic development, etc. But NBC also aired one spot on black marketing and prostitution near US bases, which prompted more negative Korean reaction and in the minds of Koreans, probably outweighed all the good that the other vignettes did. There was also an item on international adoptions, another neuralgic subject. Bryant Gumbel of NBC noted that Koreans preferred silence on the “exportation” of Korean babies.[12] And over the years, North Korean propaganda had periodically assailed the South using such terms as “selling the nation’s birthright.”

Again, jittery Koreans only wanted perfection in media coverage. When a Korean boxer had a match called against him, his ringside staff and Korean security personnel assaulted the New Zealander referee. The boxer then sat in the ring, refusing to move for over an hour.[13] When NBC Sports occasionally broke away from other events to show the boxer during his sit-down, the Korean public blamed NBC rather than the unsportsmanlike boxer.

The Games of the XXIV Olympiad ran from September 17 to October 2, 1988. There were 237 events in 27 sports at 31venues spread from Seoul to Pusan. In all, 8,454 athletes from 159 countries took part.[14] That marked the largest participation in Olympic history to that point. Of the participating countries, 24 still had no diplomatic relations with the ROK, though that would change rapidly. Michael Breen, who has resided in Seoul since 1982, has observed that the crowd of international visitors “was the largest influx of foreigners since the Korean War.…” He added “… the modern stadiums and facilities and the ability of the Koreans to organize what at the time was generally recognized as the best games to date, was nothing short of astounding, compared with what they’d been led to expect.” Moreover, “… [t]he Koreans had, in the global economic race, emerged from behind and were now running as the pacesetter for the pack chasing the leaders.”[15]

The ROK athletes came in at a very respectable sixth place in the medal count, after sports titans USSR, East Germany, the US and West Germany, as well as Bulgaria.[16] For the first time in the 12 years since Moscow and Los Angeles, no serious Cold War boycott detracted from the Games. Only Cuba and the DPRK formally boycotted, though a few other small countries failed to participate, for unclear reasons.

There was no domestic disruption to the 1988 Games, in part because of the landmark democratic election in December 1987. Overall, the lasting positive results of the Games derived from the Roh Tae-woo administration’s skilled diplomacy and the Communist world’s recognition of the ROK’s obvious attractiveness as an economic partner and a responsible member of the international community. These points in turn fed the growing understanding that there was no longer any realistic comparison between North and South.

The world had truly come to Seoul.

*Because of significant concerns raised about sourcing in Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak that he originally cited, the author has substituted a new citation for footnote 9.

  1. [1]

    Oberdorfer, Don, The Two Koreas: a Contemporary History, Addison Wesley, 1997, p.180.

  2. [2]

    Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, p. 164.

  3. [3]

    Jameson, Sam, “Bomb Kills 5 in Seoul; North Koreans Blamed,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1986.

  4. [4]

    CIA, Directorate of Intelligence, December 12, 1986, “North Korea-South Korea: The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games,” sanitized text released March 24, 2011.

  5. [5]

    Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas p. 183.

  6. [6]

    Oberdorfer, p. 184.

  7. [7]

    Oberdorfer, p. 187.

  8. [8]

    Oberdorfer, p. 188.

  9. [9]

    Kim Se-jeong,  “Hungary Fetes 20-Year Ties With Korea,” The Korea Times, February 1, 2009,

  10. [10], accessed January 27, 2018.

  11. [11]

    Lilley, James, with Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, Public Affairs, 2004, p. 289.

  12. [12]

    Jones, Maggie, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea,” The New York Times Magazine, January 14, 2015.

  13. [13]

    Matray, James, Crisis in a Divided Korea: A Chronology and Reference Guide, ABC-CLIO, 2016, p. 170.

  14. [14]
  15. [15]

    Breen, Michael, The New Koreans: the Story of a Nation, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, pp. 211-12.

  16. [16]

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