South Korean culture awaits athletes in Pyeongchang for the Olympics. USA TODAY Sports
SEOUL — When South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, it was a coming-out party for a poor country still recovering from the ruins of the Korean War.
Fast-forward to today, and South Korea is a much different place as the Winter Games begin in the city of Pyeongchang. Seoul, the capital, is now a dynamic hub of 25 million, and South Koreans enjoy a standard of living on par with most developed countries.
This global powerhouse is home to Samsung, the world’s largest phone manufacturer, and Korean brands LG and Hyundai are household names. South Korea recently ranked No. 1 for the fifth year in a row on Bloomberg’s Innovation Index, as the United States slipped to No. 11.
It also produces movies, music and fashion that travel far beyond its borders, such as the blockbuster success of K-pop. Of course, Americans are familiar with Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” but the recent crossover success of boy band BTS, whose latest album debuted at No. 7 in September on the Billboard 200, proved K-pop is making lasting inroads into the United States.
Getting to this point of economic prosperity hasn’t been easy. After the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. The average income by 1960 was just $ 158 per year, poorer than developing nations from Liberia to Guatemala.
Even neighboring North Korea was better off.
What followed was a period of growth and development so incredible it’s often called “The Miracle on the Han River.”
Fueled by determination and hard work, South Korea built a modern economy that began with light industries such as garments and textiles and then ramped up to shipbuilding, steel, automobiles and electronics.
South Korea also received billions in aid from the U.S., partly in exchange for sending more than 300,000 troops to the Vietnam War.
South Korea also pulled off the tricky transformation from an authoritarian state, ruled for the better part of two decades by strongman leader Park Chung-hee, to a full-fledged democracy. The transition, fueled by student protests and often bloody clashes, came just before the Seoul Olympics, as South Korea held a free presidential election in December 1987.
The ’88 Games gave South Korea its first big turn in the international spotlight.
“Koreans were aware that they were on show and had to do it well,” said Michael Breen, author of the book The New Koreans. “In those days the image of Korea around the world was somewhere between M*A*S*H and student demonstrations and tear gas.”
The modern-day South Korea is still dealing with political struggles and corruption, as well as its belligerent neighbor North Korea and leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions.
Koreans took to the streets last year to protest swirling scandals enveloping President Park Geun-hye — daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979 — leading to her impeachment and the peaceful election of President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May.
Moon has positioned these Olympics as the best chance to kick-start a tense relationship with North Korea, which is sending athletes and performers to the Games. Sports diplomacy could be key to what Moon has regularly called the “Peace Olympics.”
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon echoed that notion. “At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, much was talked about in terms of national power and rankings,” he said. “But now in 2018 at Pyeongchang, we should talk more about peace and prosperity.”