Business, Economics and Jobs

South Korea: Pyeongchang's Olympic makeover


South Koreans celebrate after obtaining a first-round majority in the vote for Pyeongchang to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.


Chung Sung-Jun

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The crowds watching the news just after midnight Thursday exploded in cheers and tears like a fizzy blast from a champagne bottle.

“I had to cry when I heard,” said Koh Seung-hee, standing in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Pyeongchang, a hilly district three hours from Seoul known as South Korea’s winter wonderland.

“We have been waiting so long,” she said.

Twice a runner-up, Pyeongchang had finally won the race to host the Winter Olympics in 2018.

The crescendo came when the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, appeared on live TV from Durban, South Africa, to unseal the envelope containing the name of the venue after the IOC vote.

The partying extended from the base of the long-jump slope in the Alpensia resort to the town square. A sense of relief mingled with the wild anticipation of Korea finally hosting the Winter Olympics.

“All people in Korea want to hold the Winter Olympics,” said Chang Ju-ree, who runs a small hotel with her husband a short drive from the Alpensia resort past verdant golf courses and ski slopes.

More than national pride infuses the roughly 46,000 people in the towns and villages nestled in the hills here as they plan for a steady rise in business during the run-up to the Olympics.

“This can be a good opportunity," said Chang. "We are going to open a restaurant on the first floor of our hotel. We want to offer rental of skis and snowboards — and maybe karaoke.”

Her husband, Kim Yong-tae, sees the Olympics as reversing economic setbacks in the past few years. “Development has been slowing down,” he said. “Now it should grow more and more."

The name of the hotel, he and his wife point out, is Green and Blue, green for the surrounding countryside, and blue for the sea to the east where the plan is to build six rinks in the port city of Gangneung for figure skating, hockey and curling.

Just maybe, Kim observed, an Olympic bonanza will lure one of the big foreign hotel chains to enter into a joint venture with his establishment, helping the region achieve recognition as a major sports destination.

Kim's dreams fit perfectly with those of Korea’s leaders, politicos and business people, who want to inject several billion dollars worth of investment in the region, where some of the Korean War's bloodiest battles were fought some 60 years ago.

Among the costliest schemes will be construction of a high-speed railroad, piercing the mountains with long tunnels, linking the capital to the east coast in an engineering feat that should reduce the time it takes to get here from Seoul to just an hour.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, his popularity dwindling amid reports of 20 percent unemployment among Korea’s restive 20-somethings, has personally ordered the full-scale makeover.

It was more like a full-scale offensive on the IOC before the vote. Spurned by Vancouver in 2010 and Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, Lee was newly determined this time around. He led a delegation of several hundred aides and business people to Durban, each assigned to a specific contact and charged with convcing him or her of the need to bring the Winter Olympics to “new horizons.”

"New horizons" has become a sort of slogan for the games, which will be the first Winter Olympics held in any Asian country besides Japan, which hosted them in Sapporo in 1972 and in Nagano, in the Japanese Alps, in 1998.

A stern taskmaster, Lee smiled publicly while driving his aides to distraction in the final days, hours and minutes leading to the IOC vote.

“There should be no mistake until the end," he was quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, as telling aides. "Sincerity moves heaven. Let's move heaven."

One sure vote was that of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, South Korea’s wealthiest man, according to Forbes’ listing of the 40 richest Koreans. As a member of the IOC, Chairman Lee was frequently seen at President Lee’s side. His influence is assumed to have won widespread support among representatives of companies with which Samsung, by far Korea’s biggest conglomerate, does business.

In the end, of course, the Korean machine did so remarkably well that the final tally was no contest. Pyeongchang got 65 of the 106 votes against 25 for Munich, seen until the final days as a contender, while Annecy in France won only 7.

The relationship between President Lee and Chairman Lee, however, carries risks among millions of Koreans dissatisfied with the favoritism the president has bestowed upon the company, which dominates every sector of Korean business and industry. While paying lip service to the importance of small- and medium-sized firms, he has encouraged expansion of the conglomerate over the past few years by relaxing regulations on the cross-holdings that bind the family-led groups as they pass from second to third-generation control.

Lee’s sagging popularity may leap up briefly, but garnering the games is no guarantee of ultimate voter approbation.

Lee cannot run for a second five-year term, but he would dearly hope for a successor from his Grand National Party come elections in 2012. The opposition Democratic Party, which held power for a decade before Lee’s landslide victory in 2007, is primed to exploit the unemployment issue along with inequities epitomized by a rising rich-poor gap.

No one forgets that the dictatorial Chun Doo-hwan, who seized power in October 1979, had to agree to an election in 1987 after massive demonstrations in June of that year.

Chun never got to attend the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics, a coming-out party for Korea as a new economic power, though he had a lot to do with bringing them to Korea.