Wednesday, February 12, 2014

OLYMPICS, DAY 5: Pyongyang 1988

As you know, the 1988 Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea. As you also surely know, South Korea is bordered by North Korea, then led by Kim Il-Sung. North Korea did not attend the Olympics in Seoul, as they were boycotting.

Why did they boycott? Because they wanted to co-host the Olympics.

Nagoya, Japan was the favorite to host the Summer Olympics of 1988; however, Seoul upset them in the vote at the IOC meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1981. South Korea didn't have nearly the reputation they do now- they were in 1981 a dictatorship, and as the Games tend to be, it was seen as an opportunity for South Korea to reinvent itself in front of the world. North Korea knew this, and wanted a piece of the pie for themselves. The Olympics, coming off a string of boycotts in Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles, as well as the tragedy in Munich, were not at the high point of their popularity, and North Korea knew that it was vulnerable to yet another boycott.

So a plan was hatched. In exchange for not boycotting, North Korea demanded to co-host the Olympics between Seoul and Pyongyang. They wanted at least 11 of the 23 sports to be held in Pyongyang. They wanted their own separate Opening and Closing Ceremony. They wanted a unified Korean team (in all the bluster North Korea makes, their stated aim is to 'reunify' the Koreas; the two marched under a unified flag in 2000, 2004 and 2006 but competed separately). The plan was that if the demands weren't met, not only would they boycott, but so would China and the Soviet Union, North Korea's main allies, whose absence, along with other ideologically allied nations at the time such as Cuba, would heavily damage the legitimacy of the Games, which were already seeing competition in the form of the Goodwill Games.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, then-head of the IOC, was keen on offering none of this. For one, the Olympics are awarded to a single city, and Seoul was that city. They're especially not awarded to multiple nations. He started talks with the North Korean representatives by laying out that fundamental position. Full stop. His opening offer was that the two could march consecutively in the Parade of Nations, and that the Opening Ceremony would feature themes of unification. This, North Korea balked at; they wanted a fully joint Olympics. And also they demanded that the official title of the Games be "Korea Pyongyang Seoul Olympic Games." (Note how they put Pyongyang before Seoul in the title.) The representative, Park Song-Ch’ol, also warned that failure to comply might trigger an "accidental error that would have disastrous effects on the peaceful celebrations of the Games."

You know this nowadays as your standard North Korean boilerplate saber-rattling. In the mid-1980's, though, it sounded more frightening, especially to Samaranch, who must have wished by now that Nagoya had won in the first place. He knew how damaged the image of the Olympics was, and he was rather concerned that North Korea, if not at least offered something, could actually bomb the Olympics, which was a completely unacceptable option. And North Korea's "offer", at least on its face, sounded halfway high-minded and idealistic. He was kind of in a box as to what to do. So Samaranch, IOC vice president Ashwini Kumar, and Seoul organizing head Roh Tae-Woo, had a huddle, organized by Kumar. Kumar suggested that they could at least offer some sort of concession to the North, as if they at least offered some events to them, they looked like the reasonable ones in front of the world, and the onus would be on the North to either accept or reject. And if they rejected, well, hey, you were offered. Samaranch was on board with this, though he wanted to keep the number of events offered as low as he could. Specifically, he wanted to offer enough events for it to look like a perfectly reasonable and idealistic offer, and high enough to keep North Korea from keeping with the bomb threats, but not enough to where they would run the risk of North Korea actually saying yes. And of course, Seoul was looking to lose as few events as possible for obvious reasons.

The opening offer to North Korea, announced by Roh, was that they could hold some handball and volleyball preliminaries. During talks in Lausanne in 1986, the offer went up to include the entirety of soccer, archery and table tennis as well, subject to the approval of the specific sports federations involved. The events involved would also be billed as part of the "24th Olympic Games in Pyongyang". North Korea could have said yes right here and gotten it.

They did not say yes right here. They were offered three events and two preliminaries. In January 1986, they pulled back from 11 events... to eight events.

By March, they were down to six.

By April, some accounts say they were willing to go to five.

The problem was, though, that the clock was running out on them, as the two-years-out mark is starting to cut it close on preparation time. Not only that, but their leverage- China and the Soviets- was bailing out on them. The Soviets, by April, were prepared to go to the Olympics with or without North Korea. They knew how damaged the Olympic movement was. They'd caused some of the damage themselves. They didn't want the Olympics to be killed entirely, which they feared might happen if they boycotted again. Besides, they were rather warming to South Korea. Besides that, they were hoping to hold the 1996 Winter Olympics in St. Petersburg (they had yet to change the Winter Olympic scheduling to happen in Summer Olympic off-years) and they didn't want to mess that up.

And so was China. South Korea, in a democratic movement spurred by the awarding, was starting to take off economically, which translated to business opportunities there for China... opportunities they might miss out on if they boycotted. In June 1986, China attended the Asian Games, which were also being held in Seoul, a good indication that they'd be at the Olympics. Besides, they were gearing up to bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics and they didn't want to mess that up.

In addition to all of this, the still-in-charge South Korean strongman president, Chun Doo-Hwan, was busy talking Samaranch off the ledge in regards to the North Korean threats. He assured Samaranch that without China and the Soviets, North Korea has zero leverage, and that if they tried to start a war, they would get clobbered and they knew it. Chun also warned him about North Korea's tendency to move the goalposts even when they get what they want. Samaranch still wanted to offer something, though, if only because it put the onus on South Korea to either take or leave the offer on the table. They would be forced to give a flat no and isolate themselves.

North Korea, meanwhile, went in June to talk to the Soviets, with their representative, Hwang Jang-Yeop, telling them that North Korea was now hoping for 3-4 sports. This is something that had already been offered by the IOC, but that was before. By this point, pressing leverage, Samaranch was only offering two.  And in any case, the Soviets were no longer interested in North Korea's demands. The Soviets were attending. The end.

In the next round of talks later that month, Samaranch offered table tennis and archery, along with some soccer preliminaries. Hwang may have had told the Soviets they wanted three or four sports, but North Korean Olympic committee head Kim Yu-Sun was now proposing six to Samaranch. And Kim balked at how the offer had gone down; they had previously been offered the entire soccer tournament. Samaranch was playing full-on Godfather by now, in essence saying, 'what soccer tournament? I never offered that.'

Samaranch had altered the deal. Pray he does not alter it further.

Somewhere along the line in the talks, the lightbulb went off. Kim began to realize that the game was quickly becoming up. He appeared, at least to Samaranch, to agree to the offer, provided that North Korea got their own organizing committee for the sports they were hosting, and the right to call the events they were hosting "the 24th Olympic Games in Pyongyang". The latter demands were fine by Samaranch, and as far as he was aware, that meant they had a deal. He laid down what he understood the terms to be as a confirmation... only to be met with evasion of the question. He repeated himself... only to be met with a request for ten minutes out of the room to consider the offer.

What in the world was going on here, thought Samaranch. He may not have liked the idea of North Korea co-hosting, but he thought this was done now. He thought he had something he could take to South Korea, who he figured would pretty much have to go with it. The problem was, Kim was still wanting three full sports, not two. At this point, Kim could either take the two and get something, or demand three and potentially get nothing. He very likely knew this. But for whatever reason- a lack of authority, a lack of guts, a fear of losing face by accepting the now-reduced offer- he didn't pull the trigger. When he returned to the room, he demanded three sports.

Kim Il-Sung continued to work the Soviets, personally campaigning to Mikhail Gorbechev about the demand for what he was calling eight sports, saying that because the North had a third of the population of the Korean peninsula, they should get a third of the sports. Whatever the number, Gorbechev wasn't interested, telling Kim, "I will tell you frankly that the issue is in the principle, and not in the arithmetic." To him, a multi-Korean Olympics was a multi-Korean Olympics even if they only got one lousy preliminary. And besides, they weren't boycotting, period. They didn't want to be the ones to kill the Olympic movement and take the PR hit that went along with that. Getting rather panicked, he went running to China, only to get a business lecture in response about how South Korea was the equivalent of the old cartoon profit graph with the arrow going straight up.

The lesser powers, meanwhile, knew where this all was heading and started drifting away from North Korea's side as well. East Germany backed away. Hungary backed away. Czechoslovakia backed away.

The fourth round of talks with the IOC saw North Korea demand eight sports. Samaranch offered them four pretty much just to see what would happen (not knowing about the '3-4 sports' claim made by North Korea to the Soviets, who got behind Samaranch at this stage). North Korea said no, clearly gearing up for a boycott at this point, and hoping that the now-increasing political unrest in South Korea would result in a failed Olympics and they could walk away with the 'win'. Talks had well and truly broken down by now.

The remainder of the time before the Olympics was spent by Samaranch trying to line up security and hoping to hell that North Korea wouldn't actually go through with the threats that they had now returned to making. South Korea, now led by Roh Tae-Woo after the democratic revolution, and who had never been hot on the idea of giving North Korea anything from day one, concentrated on just putting on the best damn Olympics possible and showing up Pyongyang that way, being just as confident as Chun that North Korea wouldn't actually try it.

Come the Opening Ceremony, North Korea was not in attendance. Cuba wasn't in attendance. Madagascar wasn't in attendance. The Seychelles were not in attendance. Albania wasn't in attendance, but as Albania had also boycotted Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles, their absence wasn't a big surprise to anyone. North Korea had no other allies by now, though Ethiopia and Nicaragua had their own reasons to boycott as well. Everybody else showed up, making for a then-record 159 nations.

The Olympics were a success; in fact, Seoul did so well that they were the place that well and truly launched the Paralympics into a big-time event that would from then on always share a host city with the Olympics. And North Korea did not attack.

South Korea will be hosting again in four years. They have no intention of sharing. Kim Jong-Un is relegated to trying to build his own ski resort. If anyone will let him have the parts.

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