OLYMPICS ‘88: A PREVIEW : THE HOST CITY : Seoul Rises From Ashes to Become Metropolitan Center of Distinction

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Thirty-five years ago, Seoul was a city devastated by war. Twice, it had been overrun by North Korean soldiers, bolstered by communist Chinese forces, and, although the invaders retreated both times under attack by United Nations forces, consisting primarily of units from South Korea and the United States, Seoul was left afterward to bury its dead, dig out from underneath the rubble and rebuild.

Ten years later, a U.S. correspondent who has been based in the Far East since 1963 recalled last week, Seoul still had only one building more than 12 stories tall, the area south of the Han River was nothing but rice paddies and mud flats, and there were as many man-powered A-frame carts on the streets as there were automobiles.

Under South Korean President Park Chung Hee, Seoul emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s as an industrial boom town, but the momentum from its rapid economic advancement was halted by inflation and unemployment. Park was assassinated in 1979, and the government was overthrown a year later by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan in a military coup.


Less than a year ago, Chun’s Fifth Republic was under siege by students and political opponents, who engaged in violent street demonstrations that attempted to topple the government but probably came closer to inviting martial law. Peace was restored only after democratization of the political process was promised and a new president, Roh Tae-woo, was elected.

Yet, Seoul not only has survived but prospered, and, come Saturday morning--Friday at 5 p.m., PDT--it will begin to demonstrate that to the rest of the world with the Opening Ceremonies of the XXIV Summer Olympics. When the torch above the 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium is lighted, it will be the most joyous moment in Seoul, as well as the nation, since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in 1953.

Seoul’s development in the 35 years since is little short of a miracle, the city’s rise from the ashes establishing it as the “Phoenix of the East.”

Today, it is a city of 10 million people, larger than all but four other cities in the world; of 400 skyscrapers, including Asia’s tallest building, the 63-story Daehan Life Insurance Building; of business giants recognized throughout the world, such as Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and Lucky-Goldstar, which have been significant in expanding the gross national product from $3 billion in 1965 to $145 billion this year. Economic analysts predict that South Korea soon will cross the line from a debtor to a creditor nation.

With the economy’s revitalization have come the attendant problems--pollution, traffic congestion and overcrowded living conditions.

But, in anticipation of a worldwide audience focusing on Seoul during the Olympics, the government moved to meet some of the more pressing needs. For example, the Han River, which for years was useful primarily as an industrial dump, has been decontaminated to the extent that it now is available for recreational pursuits.


“One day I was reborn seeing the Han River,” said Park Seh Jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC). “It’s so beautiful.”

The government financed that and other projects, including the expansion of a subway system, highway renovation and the construction of an international airport terminal, at a cost of $1.4 billion, almost half of the $3.1 billion that has been invested in the Olympics.

That covers the construction of the $180-million Seoul Sports Complex, for which ground was broken before the city was awarded the Games in 1981, and the $300-million Olympic Park, both of which rose out of the rice paddies and mud flats south of the river.

So eager was SLOOC to please that when international swimming officials complained that the Seoul Sports Complex indoor swimming pool, which was completed in 1980 at a cost of $6.4 million, had too few seats for spectators, another indoor pool, which cost $16 million, was built at the Olympic Park. That pool will be used for swimming. The original one will be used for water polo and diving competitions.

Upon inspecting the magnificent stadiums last week, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said that Seoul has the best sports facilities ever constructed for the Games.

Those facilities will be used by more than 12,000 athletes from 161 countries, several of which, including the Soviet Union and China, do not have diplomatic relations with South Korea. Government officials say that they already have noticed a new geniality in relations with those countries as a result of the Olympics and anticipate that it will continue, if not politically then at least economically.

They, however, are not so optimistic about their relationship with North Korea, which has been separated from the south at the 38th parallel since the end of World War II. That country is boycotting the Olympics after failing to reach an agreement with South Korean and IOC officials that would have enabled North Korea to stage some of the athletic events.

Five other countries are not participating in Seoul, at least two of them, Cuba and Ethiopia, out of third-world solidarity with North Korea.

The failure to reach an accommodation has caused military officials here and in the United States, which has an army of 42,000 in South Korea, to speculate that North Korea might try to disrupt the Games.

A bomb hidden in a trash can at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport that killed five people in 1986, days before the opening of the Asian Games, was traced to North Korean agents. So was the explosion that downed a Korean Air plane last November over Burma, killing all 115 passengers.

Even if North Korea’s word that it will not cause trouble can be trusted, there is concern that its sympathizers, such as the terrorist group known as the Japanese Red Army, may strike.

That has resulted in the creation of a 120,000-man security force, which includes military and police personnel. South Korean and U.S. military units in the region will be on alert, particularly in the demilitarized zone less than an hour’s drive north of Seoul, and the U.S. Navy will deploy aircraft carrier-based patrols offshore.

“Maximum security, minimum inconvenience,” Park said, describing his ambition for the operation.

Although some demonstrations are inevitable, there are fewer worries than there were at this time last year about the rock and Molotov cocktail-throwing students who created so much havoc, as well as worldwide publicity. One reason is that university classes during the Olympics have been canceled.

Another reason is that most South Koreans, including a majority of the students, are behind the Games, realizing that they are an opportunity for the country to emerge from its developing-nation status and become recognized as an advanced nation, as did Japan after Tokyo had staged the 1964 Summer Olympics.

For that reason, a truce among the opposing political parties has been declared, strikes have been averted, and campaigns have been waged to convince South Koreans that they should present a more amiable face to the world. South Korea’s image makers have determined that their 5,000-year-old culture needs spit and polish.

Hold the spit. Pedestrians have been asked to quit spitting on the sidewalks and pushing each other. Drivers have been asked to take their cars to work every other day, depending on whether their license plates end in odd or even numbers. Cabbies have been asked to drive defensively instead of in their usual aggressive manner and to be polite to their customers.

Restaurant owners have been asked to quit serving dishes considered offensive to Westerners, including dog meat and earthworms. Staff members of the organizing committee have been asked to brush their teeth after eating kimchi, a cabbage dish heavily seasoned with garlic and served with virtually every meal.

Everyone has been asked to learn a few words in a foreign language, preferably English. Department stores give their employes English lessons each morning before opening, there are English lessons on television each day, and taxi companies reward their drivers for displaying foreign language skills.

The results have been mixed.

A reporter called to arrange an interview with a military official last week, identifying himself to the man’s secretary as being from the New York Times.

“Please repeat,” the secretary said.

“I’m from the New York Times,” he said.

“Oh,” the secretary said. “One moment.”

When she returned, she told the reporter, “The time in New York is 3:30.”

Another man, a British employee of a U.S. public relations firm, ordered a glass of milk. When the waitress brought it, it was warm.

“I’d like it cold,” he said.

She bowed and put the milk in a microwave oven.

There is concern among some South Koreans that the peace that prevails over the city now will vanish after the Olympics. If the pessimists are to be believed, the students will return to the streets when universities re-open, the political parties will begin feuding again, labor unrest over long hours and low pay will lead to strikes, and taxpayers will revolt after the bill for the Games is passed on to them. In citizen-on-the-street interviews, the leading complaint by far is that the Games cost too much.

But, for 16 days of the Olympics, most of the people of Seoul will forget their grievances and salute themselves in a celebration of their remarkable accomplishments. Isn’t it hospitable of them to invite the rest of the world?