The 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics: Taking Fire from the Gods

At Olympic Park in Seoul rest the excavated remains of walls belonging to one of South Korea’s ancient dynasties. They represent the history of the distant past remembered. Yet the history of the park itself and the event it commemorates represents a contemporary past forgotten. Buried beneath the years and lost to recent memory is the park’s historical significance: it is a monument signifying a transformational period in South Korea’s history. At the Olympic Games the world witnessed South Korea’s rebirth following the devastation of the Korean War. More importantly, the international attention leading to the 1988 Olympics created a crucial opportunity for South Koreans to usher in a new era of democracy and freedom.

Before the Olympics, much of the world remembered South Korea for what it was: a war torn country that was once the poorest nation on earth. In the years since, South Korea faced bouts of civil unrest and repression under successive authoritarian regimes. And surprising to people today, South Korea lagged behind North Korea economically and militarily. The world was not prepared for what it saw when the cameras, spectators, and athletes arrived for the Olympic Games in September 1988.

The world caught a glimpse of a nation both transformed and reborn. In place of farms, shanty houses, and war-torn villages stood gleaming skyscrapers and a modern cityscape. Pockmarked fields were covered with brand new highways. Koreans no longer used primitive transport and technology. They rode in a state-of-the-art subway system, drove around in the latest cars, and were major producers of the semiconductors that ran many of the world’s electronics. And South Korea was no longer the poorest nation on earth: its economy ranked 18th in the world. Yet the greatest change that occurred was Korea’s transformation from a society ruled by an iron-fisted dictatorship to a land of freedom.

South Korea had suffered under dictatorship for over 30 years. Although its dictators delivered on their promises of economic prosperity, they often resorted to repressive social and political controls and violence in response to public protests. A series of startling announcements from then-dictator Chun Doo-Hwan in 1987 became the sparks that ignited South Korea’s democratic revolution. He declared that the national constitution would not be revised until after the Olympics and that his deputy, Roh Tae-woo, would become the ruling party’s presidential candidate after he resigned from power. Political arrangements at the time guaranteed Roh would become the next dictator of Korea. Upon hearing the news, South Koreans took to the streets and violently protested.

The regime’s initial instinct was to meet the protests with force, as it had infamously done in 1980. Yet the world was closely watching events as they unfolded. The regime eventually realized that violently repressing the protests would jeopardize South Korea’s plans to host the Olympics. Protestors saw a window of opportunity and transformed the Olympics into a lens. By protesting more vigorously and loudly, protestors magnified the international community’s focus on the regime. Eventually their protests ignited the world’s condemnation and the regime soon relented. South Korea held democratic elections for president in late 1987. The following year Seoul hosted one of the most successful Olympic Games in history.

Incredibly, visitors at Olympic Park won’t see any monuments that commemorate this history.
Perhaps the country’s transition to democracy was too a painful story, one that’s not worth romanticizing and glorifying. Or perhaps, for the sake of good taste, the visionaries who created the park thought it was best to not sully the park’s reputation with political history. Yet today many people in Asia and around the world continue to struggle under the rule of authoritarian dictatorships. So long as that reality persists, Korea’s story is one worthy recognition and immortalization because it stands as a symbol of hope that the transition to democracy can be made.

With this in mind, there is one symbol at the park that perfectly embodies Korea’s peaceful transition to democracy. Standing between the towering columns of the World Peace Gate is an eternal flame. Although it is meant to symbolize world peace, the flame in Greek mythology can also be seen to symbolize protest and resistance. When the Greek god Zeus punished mankind by forbidding it from using fire, the Titan known as Prometheus scaled Mount Olympus and made his own fire from the sun. After, in defiance of Zeus, he gave it back to the people. In the 1980s, South Koreans, in the role of Prometheus, did much the same: they defied their gods to give the gift of democracy back to their country and to posterity. By doing so, they also provided further support for an historical, universal truth: a society determined to gain its own freedom will scale the most perilous summit in pursuit of it. And that no one can stop it from grasping it. Not even the gods.

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