As Korean legend has it, a bear and a tiger, standing on a mountainside, talked about haw to become human. A divine voice told them that if they stayed in a cave for 100 days and ate nothing but garlic and herbs, they would achieve their goal. The tiger, growing impatient, gave up before the long ordeal was over. But the bear persevered and emerged from the cave as a beautiful woman—so beautiful that King Hwanung, son of the Creator, promptly married her. Shortly after, to this bear-god couple was born a son, Tan ’gun, who, in 2333 BC, founded a kingdom that became Korea.
To many North Americans, the name Korea conjures up few specific images. A bloody war. M*A*S*H reruns. Inexpensive shirts. Rioting in the streets of Seoul against a confusing collection of leaders named Kim, Lee or Park, the surnames of almost half of all Koreans. Their legendary direct descendancy from God has not spared Koreans from centuries of strife and being overshadowed by their earthly and more powerful neighbors on the Pacific Rim, China and Japan. Tan’gun’s kingdom has been repeatedly invaded. It has been divided by the post-Second World War victors, decimated by the big-power-backed Korean War, and left to live in precarious peace—under an armistice but still no final treaty—between the Communist North and the non-Communist South.
In a sense, the Seoul Olympics are South Korea’s answer to its relative obscurity and relentless turmoil. They are intended as a celebration of national pride and progress, proof positive that the nation is secure enough, resourceful enough —and, yes, world-class enough—to welcome a peaceful invasion of the globe’s summer athletes. The country has a new president, ex-general Roh Tae-woo, and a new parliament, both directly elected after the autocratic government was forced to accede to the demands of the rock-hurling students last year. It has towering skyscrapers and trendy shops, the trappings of an export-driven economic miracle. But many of its 41 million people still harbor deep dissatisfactions. University students, whose almost-weekly riots this spring and summer captured headlines around the world, are demanding everything from the expulsion of the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to reunification with the North. And the North-South dividing line—the grim, heavily girded 38th parallel—remains an ever-threatening flash point for global strife.
Poking 1,000 km south from the Chinese main-
land into the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, the Korean peninsula—green, mountainous and mist-shrouded—is known as “The Land of the Morning Calm.” Its history, however, has been anything but. Down through the millennia, Korea has fought countless battles against rival kingdoms, and its invaders have included the Mongols, the Manchu and the Japanese. During the 19th century, its isolationism earned it the sobriquet “The Hermit Kingdom.”
But no sooner had Western traders and missionaries helped to pry Korea’s door open than Japanese invaders rushed through it again and, in 1910, annexed Korea as a brutally kept colony.
Japan’s defeat in the Second World War promised liberation at last. But the Soviet Union and the United States, in accepting the Japanese surrender north and south of the 38th parallel, respectively, severed the nation roughly in half in September,
1945. Over the next three years, Moscow and Washington negotiated directly and through the newly formed United Nations to reunify Korea. But the Soviets resisted, and, in August, 1948, southern residents elected American-educated nationalist Syngman Rhee as the first president of the Republic of Korea. Three weeks later in the North, a Moscow-created assembly chose ex-guerrilla fighter Kim II Sung as the first premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Both leaders claimed to represent all of Korea—and a clash was quick in coming.
In the predawn hours of June 25,1950, supported by a massive artillery barrage, 10 North Korean armored divisions roared over the parallel and ripped through the porous South Korean defences. The United States swiftly sent in troops under the command of U.S.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In September, after being driven deep into the peninsula’s southern tip, MacArthur launched an amphibious assault behind enemy lines at the port of Inchon, 32 km west of Seoul, and a nearsimultaneous attack in the South.
The counteroffensive proved so successful that MacArthur’s men soon pressed over the parallel
into the North, only to be driven back again when the Chinese entered the fray on the North Korean side. Stalemated, the fighting finally ended with the signing of an armistice at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. Some one million people died, 312 of them Canadian UN helpers— yet the Koreans remained a divided people.
Over the past 35 years, South Korea, backed by U.S. troops and economic aid,
has been governed by a series of proWestern, authoritarian regimes. A student revolt overthrew Rhee in 1960, but an interim civilian government was soon toppled in a coup led by Maj.-Gen. Park Chung-Hee. The Park junta reinstated repressive policies, jailing dissidents and censoring antigovernment publications. In 1979, Park was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, paving the way for Lt.Gen. Chun Doo-hwan to seize power in another coup.
Chun’s rule was no less autocratic. When students in the southwestern provincial capital of Kwangju demonstrated against martial law in May, 1980, the general’s troops opened fire on the protesters. Government officials put the death toll at 200; the students, at 2,000. Chun’s more recent troubles began in April, 1987, when he cut off talks with the opposition over rewriting the constitution and designated Roh as his successor. Once again, Korean students took to the I
streets. Throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, they waged daily battle with riot police, who wielded shields and clouded the air with virulent pepper gas. Finally, the government gave in and allowed direct elections last December— which Roh, 55, won, thanks to a severely divided opposition.
For all its upheaval, however, South Korea has managed an extraordinary economic boom. Emulating their traditional enemies in Japan, the South Koreans have relied on long work hours, low wages and the export of such manufactured goods as textiles, electronics and, more recently, automobiles. The long march from destruction to dynamism has driven up the annual per capita income to $2,300 today from $105 in 1965, while the literacy rate stands at a startling 98 per cent.
Across the four-kilometre-wide Demilitarized Zone (dmz)—past the barbed wire and the minefields—the 20 million North Koreans have g fashioned a decidedly dif? ferent sort of society. Their “Great Leader” Kim, 76, has made himself the focus of an extraordinary personality cult. His unsmiling portrait glowers down from public buildings in Pyongyang, the clean, grandly built capital. His “worker’s state” is regimented, austere and highly secretive, a kind of latter-day “Hermit Kingdom.” Kim protects his power with muscle: an 885,000-strong armed forces, amply supplied with Soviet tanks and missiles.
Through the years, Pyongyang operatives have tried to assassinate South Korean leaders and have dug tunnels under the DMZ to attempt an invasion. The South Koreans maintain 700,000 troops of their own, backed by 40,000 U.S. soldiers. With tensions chronically high—and sporadic North-South talks on reunification at a dismal impasse— the Korean peninsula remains a geopolitical tinderbox, potentially capable of touching off a world war. It is against this uncertain backdrop that the South Koreans are staging, of all things, a festival of sport. As such, the Seoul Olympics stand as a kind of wilful repudiation, a declaration that, despite its myriad troubles—its tumultuous past, its internal strife, its menacing neighbors to the north—at least half of Tan’gun’s kingdom is finally coming of age.
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