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Seoul ’88 : Guests Feel Secure Despite Complimentary Gas Mask

There are three rabbits in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, strumming their guitars to the melodies of Sergio Mendes. Or perhaps I should say there are three Korean men wearing rabbit costumes, one orange, one yellow and one blue. The yellow rabbit also is wearing sunglasses.

You might wonder if I have seen too many Fellini movies or perhaps have had too much soju , the Korean equivalent of sake , but it is only 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and there are other witnesses.

At times like this, Seoul seems quite tame.

Then there was Saturday, when I got off the subway near Dongguk University in downtown Seoul and immediately felt my eyes stinging and my throat burning. With apologies to Robert Duvall in the movie, “Apocalypse Now,” I can’t say that I love the smell of tear gas in the morning. It was the residue from the most recent anti-government and anti-American student demonstration.

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I don’t want to blow this out of proportion as the U.S. news media has been accused of doing in relation to the political turmoil, which has shown signs of reawakening after hibernating for the winter.

Although we’ve heard about demonstrations since we arrived last Thursday, we haven’t felt threatened by them. We haven’t even seen them, and we wouldn’t have felt them if we had worn the complimentary gas mask provided by the hotel. The mask is to be worn in case of fire, but one assumes it also could be useful in a riot.

More than 80 representatives of U.S. Olympic sports, including U.S. Olympic Committee President Robert Helmick, are here to inspect the facilities, which, by the way, are unparalleled by any built for previous Games. It’s doubtful any of the representatives will return home with the feeling that they are endangering athletes by sending them to the Seoul Olympics, which begin Sept. 17. As numerous neon signs throughout the city remind us, that is 110 days from now.

It’s not unusual to feel secure when there is so much security. You are enveloped by it even before boarding a Korean Air flight in Los Angeles, where a guard took the batteries from a passenger’s portable tape player. Korean government officials explained that they fear a terrorist might disguise an explosive as a battery, citing the KAL flight carrying 115 people that crashed last year over Burma.

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South Korean officials blame North Korea for the tragedy and have produced a North Korean terrorist who admitted her complicity. The South Koreans also accuse the North Koreans of planting a bomb in a trash can at Seoul Kimpo airport, where five people were killed in an explosion less than a week before the Asian Games began in 1986. Security measures at the airport now are so thorough that it takes an hour and a half to get from passport control to the street.

Yet, despite the acrimonious relationship between the two Koreas, the South continues to make overtures in hopes that the North will participate in the Olympics. Insisting upon a co-host role for themselves, the North Koreans have not responded to an offer that would allow them to stage five events. The first deadline for acceptance was Jan. 17, the second was May 17. The South Koreans say they will extend the deadline until the Opening Ceremony if necessary.

“Officially, the door is still open,” said Chyun Sang Jin, a special assistant to the president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC).

“The best thing, of course, would be for the North to participate in our Games. There are no barriers to them. In Montreal in 1976, the Canadian government would not allow Chinese Taipei to participate because it did not have diplomatic relations with that government. We do not have diplomatic relations with mainland China, and yet we welcome them to Seoul. We have done everything to separate sports from politics.”

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China is one of many Communist countries that will compete in Seoul. Only the U.S. delegation of 808, including 639 athletes, is larger than the Soviets’ 784-member team. China had the third-largest team at the Asian Games and plans to have 468 in its delegation at the Olympics.

If you believe the South Koreans, athletes aren’t all that China has sent to Seoul. South Koreans call the omni-present smog here the yellow wind, claiming that it is dust blowing in from the Yellow River in China. When players in the Korean Open tennis tournament in April complained about the dirty, slippery and shiny court at the Olympic Tennis Center, organizers blamed sand blown in from China by the spring wind.

Nevertheless, the South Koreans have agreed to resurface the courts. The Olympic Tennis Center, incidentally, was modeled after the National Tennis Center, the site of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadow, New York. The planners copied it to a fault. Just as play at the National Tennis Center often is interrupted because of flights taking off at LaGuardia Airport, players in the Korean Open were jarred by the noise of aircraft coming and going at Kimpo.

If there is any way, the Koreans will try to correct that. Above all else, they are eager to please. They opened a $6.4-million swimming stadium in 1980, but the international swimming federation complained because it had a seating capacity of only 4,500. No problem. The Koreans built a $16-million, 10,000-seat swimming facility that was completed earlier this month.

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The last of the required facilities will be dedicated Wednesday, when the Athletes Village and the Press Village open in a ceremony to be attended by South Korean president Roh Tae Woo and international Olympic committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Security already is tight at the villages. When I tried to enter one day last week, I had to wait 15 minutes for clearance, even though I was accompanied by two SLOOC officials.

A day later, when I visited the magnificent, 100,000-seat main stadium, I received permission from an armed soldier to inspect the press seating, which is supposed to be off limits to visitors. But barely did I have time to get there before he came to retrieve me. The guy wasn’t half bad, though. Before I left, I spotted him smiling as he agreed to take snapshots of a tour group.

All of the security notwithstanding, there is no one to protect the faint-hearted visitor once he enters a taxi. Los Angeles may be approaching gridlock, but Seoul is already there. But do you think this bothers taxi drivers? They just go around traffic jams, even if it means driving on the wrong side of the highway. One question we must ask before leaving is what the lines on the highways are supposed to mean. Most drivers ignore them.

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Taxi drivers and others in service industries have been schooled in English for the Olympics. While few of them are fluent, they speak it considerably better than most Americans do Korean.

To impress visitors, government officials also have discouraged their citizens from smoking, from eating dogs, snakes and earthworms in public and from spitting on the sidewalk. Most Koreans, to their credit, have resisted these campaigns. Foreigners may take over Seoul during the Olympics, but they will not take over the Koreans’ souls. Known as the Irish of the Orient for their sentimentality and their devotion to family, they have more to teach than they do to learn.


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