Hearts and Minds; Can Korea Handle the World Cup?

Article excerpt

* The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of any organizations to which he may belong.

The World Cup 2002 is rapidly approaching. The biggest question and worry is whether we are ready to host the event and do it well without seriously damaging our reputation in the world.

Other than the obvious question of completing the physical facilities (the stadia, accommodations, transportation network, information service, and others), unlike the 1988 Olympic Games, there are other unique problems that confront the country.

Since the event will be co-hosted with Japan, the problems that will arise when comparisons are drawn between the two host nations' preparations for such an important event can create a lot of troublesome problems for Korea for years and perhaps even decades to come. In some cases, we will never live down the disaster.

In case of a disastrous result, which is now believed to be probable or actually nearly certain, the comparison experienced by the visitors to the two countries will confirm and reinforce their already held views on Korea's backwardness and its unruliness (even ungovernability). All that Korea gained from the World Cup Games is the extremely negative impression that will be sown globally -- with unimaginable impact on Korea's future dealings with the outside world. A very serious prospect, indeed.

Korea has changed so much in the intervening years since 1988, thus it poses the question if today's Korea can handle the problems as well as it did for the 1988 Olympic Games.

A major difference that comes readily to mind is the multiplication of truly monumental traffic problems as the sheer number of automotive vehicles has increased by more than 5 times [from roughly two to far more than 10 million by 1998]. No elaboration is necessary about potential gridlock that will paralyze the whole nation and throw the games into a major crisis.

Under normal conditions, the traffic situation in Korea defies description: the sheer number of vehicles, poorly trained, aggressive, ill-mannered, and habitually law breaking drivers can create total anarchy. The super-critical traffic problems will be magnified to an unbelievable level of chaos once the world's rambunctious and potentially highly destructive soccer fans come by tens of thousands. The recent case of the highly instructive experiences of the Belgian authorities in tackling the unruly mob of ``hooligans'' -- could give us a preview of what we are in for when the games open.

Maintenance of law and order will be the responsibility of the already maximally burdened Korean ``combat/riot police'' who will have to add to their excessive burden the critical task of containing and controlling potential riots by physically much bigger and much more powerful Western soccer fans in destructive moods, further aggravated by Korea's lack of proper and internationally recognizable preparations. Any one who has travelled overseas can readily compare in their minds the real differences in the average physique of European/American policemen and their much smaller and lighter Korean counterparts. So what will Korea do, if and when the riot police cannot physically handle the job of controlling the unruly mob on the rampage without using excessive force. Bring the armed troops in? Use more than tear gas canisters and water cannons? The prospect is mind-boggling in terms of the damage it could inflict on Korea. [In the Belgian case during the recent Euro 2000 soccer tournaments, Belgium had the promise from surrounding countries that they would come to assist if things got totally out of hand. Who could Korea call upon for help? And who would actually come to assist? And how could that be arranged?]

The 1988 Olympics were hosted under a political system that was not democratic -- with incomparably less freedoms for individual citizens. No question, under the dictators since the 1960s, Korean citizens behaved much better in public, and were far more deferential to authorities, laws and regulations. …