It used to be known as the Hermit Kingdom because of its self-exile from the rest of the world, but Korea, or at least the part of it that lies south of the 38th parallel, had a belated coming-out party Saturday that was televised worldwide to an estimated 3 billion people.
The occasion was the opening ceremony of the XXIV Olympic Games, which was performed before an audience of 65,994 at the magnificent Olympic Stadium near the banks of Seoul's Han River.
Athletes from a record 160 delegations, including 9 that have never before participated in the Olympics, marched into the stadium. That is 20 more countries than attended the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984.
Unlike two years ago, when the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in this same stadium was drenched by a thunderstorm, there was nothing but blue sky overhead Saturday. Park Seh Jik, the superstitious president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC), considered that a good omen, especially after Friday's rain.
The theme of these Games, as advanced by the SLOOC, is "Peace and Prosperity," and there are few better places to begin looking for South Korea's prosperity than the three-mile area surrounding the $73-million Olympic Stadium, which officially opened four years ago.
The facilities at the Seoul Sports Complex and the Olympic Park, only a few of which were standing before Seoul was awarded the Games in 1981, are the best for a Summer Olympics, said Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, president of the International Olympic Committee.
But their construction amounts to only a share of the $3.1 billion that was spent on the Games, including a $1.4-billion contribution from the government, as Seoul tries to present its best face to the world.
Peace is less tangible.
North Korea, which separated itself from the south after World War II, is one of seven IOC member nations not in attendance, although Samaranch has said that its athletes will be welcome through the closing ceremony Oct. 2.
Three other countries--Cuba, Ethiopia and Madagascar--are boycotting in support of North Korea. That country was rebuffed in negotiations with the IOC and the South Korean Olympic Committee that would have enabled North Korea to stage some of the sporting events that are to take place over the next 16 days. Albania, Nicaragua and the Seychelles are absent for other reasons.
A number of university students in Seoul have argued that a co-host arrangement between the two countries might further the cause of reunification that is so dear to many South Koreans. Although there have been some demonstrations, they are not expected to disrupt the Games or any of the events connected with them.
In the event of threats from the students, North Koreans or terrorist groups, such as the reportedly resurgent Japanese Red Army, the South Korean government and SLOOC have a 120,000-man security force at their disposal.
Even some of the countries that sent athletes are not contributing wholeheartedly to the harmony that SLOOC officials say their presence indicates.
As dictated by tradition, Greece led the procession of nations into the Olympic Stadium Saturday, and the host country, South Korea, entered last. In between, the nations were supposed to march in order, according to the Korean alphabet.
But Iran's place was changed when it wouldn't allow its athletes to follow Iraq's, and that also was the case with Taiwan, which insisted that its athletes be separated from China's.
Iran also balked when young women were chosen to enter the stadium ahead of each delegation with a sign identifying the nation. For religious reasons, the Islamic republic demanded that a man carry its sign. The SLOOC agreed, designating one man to march along with 159 women.
The SLOOC chose the women according to criteria based on their attitude, stature and walk. Depending on their ranking, the women then were allowed to choose the delegations that they represented.
The woman who finished second, Lee Ji Eun, chose the United States. She preceded the U.S. flag bearer, 1984 Olympic track and field gold medalist Evelyn Ashford, 31, and a large contingent of officials and athletes into the stadium. Although not everyone in the U.S. delegation marched in the opening ceremony, the United States has the largest team in the Games with 779 athletes and officials.
Ashford, a former UCLA student who was raised in Roseville but now lives in Walnut, is one of 161 California athletes on the U.S. team. New York state has the next-largest number of athletes, 36. Ashford also is the first black woman chosen to carry the U.S. flag at an Olympic opening ceremony.
The highest-ranked woman in the SLOOC's test, Lee Gi Ja, marched in front of the South Korean team. Her name in Korean is pronounced "Ee-Gi-Ja," which means, "Let's win." SLOOC officials said that is a coincidence and had no bearing on her selection.
If there had been an applause meter at the stadium, the South Koreans certainly would have won. Their delegation of 603 was the only one to receive a prolonged ovation.
Cho Young Chul, a judo player who won a bronze medal in 1984, was South Korea's flag-bearer.
There was curiosity before the ceremony about whether the United States would receive as warm a reception as the Soviet Union and China. The United States has been a close ally of South Korea for almost four decades but also is resented by some citizens here, in part because of the 42,000 military personnel it stations in the country. Student demonstrations have had an increasingly anti-American theme.
The Soviet Union and China, which are aligned with North Korea, do not have diplomatic relations with South Korea. But their ties to the country are improving, as evidenced by, among other things, their presence at the Olympics.
Less than a year ago, the Soviets were criticizing the IOC's choice of Seoul for the Games. But they since have been highly supportive of the city's efforts. They not only have sent the second-largest delegation, a total of 655, but also are participating in the arts festival with a troupe of dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet and other Soviet companies.
And more significant, the Soviet Union has allowed Korean Air Lines (KAL) planes carrying athletes to the Games to fly over Soviet air space. A KAL plane was shot down upon entering Soviet air space in 1983, killing all passengers.
There also was speculation that Hungary would be well-received. Earlier this week, it became the first Eastern Bloc country to establish de facto diplomatic relations with South Korea. Government officials here hope that other Soviet Bloc countries will follow.
But until the South Koreans entered the stadium, there was no significant difference in the enthusiasm that the crowd showed for any country, as each was politely applauded. The Dutch drew murmurs for the bright orange umbrellas they carried to deflect the midday sun, and the Canadians brought some spectators to their feet by throwing Frisbees into the stands.
Marching to "Stars and Stripes Forever," the U.S. athletes, were the most free-spirited. Some of them interrupted the orderly procession to take pictures of each other. One athlete held a sign that said, "Hi Mom, I'm Here," and another had a sign that said, "Send Won (the South Korean currency)." The crowd did not join their chants of, "U.S.A., U.S.A."
After the delegations gathered on the field, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo officially declared the Games open. In contrast to President Reagan, who made his pronouncement in 1984 from behind bulletproof glass in the Coliseum press box for security reasons, Roh, displaying confidence in the measures his government has taken to protect the Olympics, stood in the open.
Los Angeles' role as host city of the Games officially ended when Mayor Tom Bradley arrived in Seoul to hand over the Olympic flag, which was carried into the stadium by eight South Korean athletes, including all six of its 1984 gold-medal winners.
The Olympic flame neared the end of its its 10,000-mile, 26-day journey from the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, as Sohn Kee Chung carried the torch into the stadium.
Sohn, 76, was the first Korean to win a gold medal--he finished first in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics--but he represented Japan, which was Korea's colonial master from 1910-45. Sohn cried during the victory ceremony in 1936 out of sadness, as Japan's flag, the Rising Sun, was raised. But his tears Saturday were of the other kind as he literally leaped for joy when he entered the stadium.
Sohn ran 100 meters and handed the torch to Lim Chun Ae, 19, the South Korean farm girl who won three gold medals in track and field at the 1986 Asian Games. Lim was involved in a highly publicized incident last year when she was hospitalized with a ruptured eardrum after her coach slapped her on the head for not working hard enough in a practice. The coach later issued a public apology, and Lim promised to be more diligent.
Lim ran one lap before transferring the flame to three runners, Chung Sun Man, 30, a schoolteacher on the remote Korean island of Sohuksando; Kim Won Tak, 24, a graduate student at a Seoul university and a marathoner, and Sohn Mi Chung, 18, a Seoul high school student who is studying dance.
They were dramatically elevated on a platform to the caldron, which sits on a tower 22 meters above the ground, and simultaneously lit the Olympic torch.
SLOOC officials explained that those three runners were selected to light the torch because they represent the fields of athletics, scholastics and arts, as they harmonize at the Seoul Olympics. They also represent heaven, earth and humankind.