The future of our societyThe PyeongChang Winter Olympics has been an exciting drama series. The show of athletic excellence has been as moving and individualistic as each national flag decorating the sports arenas. The sight of Japan’s Nao Kodaira comforting her Korean competitor Lee Sang-hwa helped melt the old hostility between the two neighbors more than any ceremonial handshakes at summits between Korea and Japan.
Chloe Kim, the youngest U.S. snowboarder to win an Olympic gold in the halfpipe with a record score, enchanted fans of the birth country of her parents by celebrating her triumph in fluent Korean. The silver-medal-winning curling queens, who beat one champion nation after another until the final on Feb. 25; record-making gold-medalist Korean skeleton slider Yun Sung-bin; and the winning streak of the female short-track team played up the vibrant young Korean power to the global audience.
The PyeongChang drama reconfirmed how magical and moving sports can be compared to the pretentious diplomatic and political scenes. North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, who had threatened the world with nuclear missiles, may have hoped to harness the spell by sending his younger sister as his envoy to the PyeongChang opening ceremony. I took a moment to ponder upon our politics which remain so far behind the Korean standards in many areas. The Olympics can be a window to show off our potential and achievements, but also a mirror for us to study our bare selves.
The shadows of the past draw a stark contrast to the dashing Olympics spectacle. The PyeongChang Games, as is Olympics tradition, accentuated the technology and creativity standards of the host country. The hydrogen vehicles that roamed around the Olympics pavilions, the amazing sky show of 1,218 drones at the opening night, and the mythical bird with the face of a human underscored Korea’s cutting-edge high-tech power as well as the refinement in storytelling. But outside the Olympics venue, Korea is fighting with ghosts of the past.
The specters are politicians who ride on the mighty authority enjoyed by bureaucrats. A ruling party lawmaker made herself an eyesore by pushing herself into a restricted area at the sliding pavilion where the skeleton race took place. But more serious excesses are committed in shadowy places.
In the past industrialized times as well as today’s transitional period of the fourth industrial revolution, regulatory power hinders and stifles Korean capabilities. For instance, Google Maps and car-sharing Uber services are not accessible to hundreds of Olympics tourists. They cannot extend their tours to nearby areas in Gangwon province if they do not have the familiar Uber or Google Maps.
The services, omnipresent elsewhere in the world, are inaccessible thanks to rigid red tape in Korea. Uber cannot establish its network in Korea because of multi-layered regulations and rules. Without such global services, foreigners cannot venture out to local attractions even during the international sports festival. Bureaucrats and politicians should keep up with the times. It is not just foreign tourists that cannot find their way in Korea.
The PyeongChang Olympics also highlighted the bright side of Korea. Team Korea and the cheering audiences demonstrated Korea’s ability to overcome their deep-rooted nationalistic sentiment and comfortably celebrate their individuality and sports events. Medalists did not break into tears and turned the glory to the national flag. They said they were pleased with themselves for having had a precious chance to push their physical and mental limits. Instead of dwelling on medals, they talk of how they have enjoyed their moment and journey. These truly liberal and individualistic people are the future of our society.
The Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988 had been a coming-out party for Koreans to show off their rags-to-riches transformation. The PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018 brought the spotlight to the dynamic and upbeat young generation sporting liberalism and individualism.
Before the Olympics, Pyeongchang was a little known ski town in a country affected by North Korean nuclear and terrorist threats. But in just a couple of weeks, Koreans were able to fully display themselves as carefree and daring people who can comfortably blend their beautiful nature and IT in their lives. The question is whether the Olympics drama will end as a one-time show, or place the country on a new level toward matured democracy and lasting peace.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 23, Page 31
*The author, a professor of politics at Chung-Ang University, is a columnist of JoongAng Ilbo.