SEOUL - As South Korea closes in on its one-year countdown to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the Game’s organizers look to focus attention on the country’s first Olympics in 30 years.
They’re already competing with a bigger story – the political scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye. Next week, South Korea’s Constitutional Court begins to review her impeachment by the National Assembly. The woman at the center of the scandal and Park’s old friend, Choi Soon-sil, is on trial over charges of abuse of power and fraud.
The successful movement inspired by the alleged corrupt relationship between Park and Choi – hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding the president’s resignation – offers hope of change in South Korea, said Yang Myungji, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
But if Park and Choi aren’t properly punished, said Yang, that hope may be shattered, and a shadow may continue to hang over the country ahead of the Winter Games.
“If they get punished in a light way, I think people will be really frustrated, and people will feel again like there’s no hope about this society to have fairness or equality,” said Yang.
Yang said the country’s political trajectory, which depends on the outcome of Park’s impeachment and next year’s presidential election, could also impact the mood.
Before the scandal, Pyeongchang was already struggling to generate buzz as a remote ski resort in the northeast province of Gangwon, which extends by a sliver into North Korea and bills itself as the only divided province in the world.
South Korea is also not known for its prowess in winter sports, though it frequently racks up medals in speed skating at international competitions.
Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon told Yonhap News the scandal is a distraction to building Olympic hype around humble, rural Pyeongchang, which failed to win the Games twice before a successful bid in 2011.
“We are in the final stage of preparations, but it is difficult to create a boom for the Games because they’ve been overshadowed by the political situation,” said Choi. “It is our priority to raise national and global interest next year.”
Corporate sponsors reportedly have been hesitant to support the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG) since the scandal broke.
According to Yonhap, Choi and her niece are suspected of profiting from various deals related to preparations for the Games.
The POCOG told VOA it will only fall just short of its year-end sponsorship target of around $778.5 million, nearly half of its operating budget.
Kim Yujin, manager of international media relations for the Games, said talks are ongoing with companies and several more sponsorships will be announced “in due time.”
“It is regretful that such a scandal is overshadowing the country,” said Kim. “It may not be correct to say that the firms are reluctant to support PyeongChang 2018 due to the current scandal, but considering its promotional effect, we are in close discussions with the firms.”
Regarding the Game’s total budget, the Associated Press reported Gangwon Province and the central government have been at odds over who should be paying the bills, which stand at around $12 billion.
Pyeongchang organizers hope test events, such as alpine and cross country skiing, at Olympic venues this winter will help generate interest in the games.
POCOG’s Kim said the start of ticket sales in February will also help organizers “connect with the audience around the world through various channels to boost interest.”
Another promotion vehicle, Kim hopes, will be Korea’s pop culture, including TV dramas and music.
Governor Choi Moon-soon told Yonhap that in order to fuel a “boom,” Gangwon Province has formed a marketing agreement with Gyeonggi Province and the central government.
“I hope that this agreement can be a catalyst to make the Pyeongchang Olympics known in and out of Korea,” said Choi.
According to the POCOG, construction projects are moving along nicely. It says six newly-built competition venues are more than 95 percent complete and will be ready for test events this winter.
The committee also says high-speed rail lines to shuttle athletes and spectators from Incheon International Airport and Seoul to venues in Pyeongchang and Gangneung are expected to be completed by July as scheduled.
South Korea faced political turmoil ahead of the 1988 Summer Olympics as well. The country held its first democratic elections in 1987 following mass demonstrations.
“Had the Olympics not been there… the dictatorship might have misbehaved, but the whole world was watching Korea then, the Olympics was waiting, so [President Chun Doo-hwan] and [future Pres. Roh Tae-woo] conceded [to democratic elections],” said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based author of books on Korea who was a correspondent here during the 1980s and covered the ’88 Games.
“That was the role the Olympics served. It helped to restrain the dictatorship and allowed democracy to happen.”
That’s not to say the 2018 Winter Olympics must serve as a force to unite the country’s fractured politics. South Korea has been recognized for decades as a highly industrialized nation with a full-fledged democracy.
Myungji Yang from the University of Hawaii remembers growing up during the ’87 protests, which she described as “heavy” and events in which those taking part ran “the risk of their own lives.”
But not now, she said. Yang, who attended a protest against President Park recently said rallies are “festival-like” and “family oriented,” a sign the county has changed dramatically for the better.
If there is a connection between ’88 and ‘18, it may be just beyond the horizon for now.
Despite concerns leading up to a major event, Breen said, Koreans “always pull off a fantastic event. Which is what they’ll do for Pyeongchang.”