With the world poised in anticipation of the summit later this month between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, the geopolitical legacy of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics lives on amid the ongoing inter-Korean rapprochement and hopes for a breakthrough in Pyongyang-Washington relations. Andrew Salmon specially for the Asia Times.
On the ground, however, the heritage is more mixed. Just one year after the landmark event, locals in Gangwon, the northeastern province of South Korea where the Games were held, have contrasting views.
In the coastal city of Gangneung, where the skating events were held, plans are afoot to maintain the stadia and many businesses are upbeat. In the highlands of PyeongChang, however, businesses are less happy, and storm clouds hang over the remaining physical legacy of the Games.
The greatest infrastructure heritage of PyeongChang 2018, however, is unrelated to sports: It is an engineering marvel that smashed a historic barrier to open up the province on the eve of the Olympics.
Sleek, smooth and silent, the shark-snouted KTX bullet train whisks visitors from Seoul Station over 54 bridges and through 34 tunnels, east-west across the width of the peninsula, depositing them in Gangneung in just two hours.
It is a remarkable development. Prior to the line’s opening just before the Olympics commenced, a regular rail trip took five hours and 50 minutes. It was similar for road links: A new highway opened just prior to the Games slashed 40 minutes off prior road travel time.
For the first time in Korean history, the lowlands of the west are conveniently connected, over and through the jagged spine of the Taebaek mountain range, to the east coast. These Olympic transport links place the Seoul metropolitan area, with its population of 25 million – half of South Korea’s 51 million people – within day-trip range of Gangwon Province (home to just 1.5 million) and its mountains and beaches.
According to Korail, from the line’s opening, 4.65 million passengers used the line. Tourist numbers have risen, albeit modestly. According to Gangwon Province data, visits in 2017 totaled 122.6 million; in 2018, there were 125.2 million.
This may be why a 4.84 million square meter resort, to include a branch of China’s famed Shaolin Temple and a village featuring Chinese regional cuisines will reportedly begin construction in 2019, with investment from Korean corporation Kolon and Chinese investors.
In Gangneung, the KTX has been a boon to real-estate agent Hong Seong-yeol, whose office sits across the road from the apartments that were, one year ago, the Athletes’ Village. The 3,500 homes there have already been sold. Nearby, he points out a construction lot where another 800 apartments are rising. All have been pre-sold.
“I’m satisfied,” he said, noting that the property market had risen 20-30% on the 2018 Games’ momentum. “The Winter Olympics were not just one month – the whole area boomed.”
Many of Hong’s clients are well-to-do pensioners from the metropolis, who escape Seoul’s smog for the cleaner air and the region’s spectacular geography. Courtesy of the KTX, they can reside in the ocean-front city while enjoying easy access to the capital. House prices in Gangneung are similar to those in Seoul’s satellite towns.
Cho Hee-dong, a staffer at Budnamu, a brew pub and downtown hot-spot set in an ambient, remodeled traditional brewery, is equally upbeat.
“Since the KTX, it seems like Gangneung has become a more friendly, more accessible city,” he said between pouring craft stouts and red ales. “We get more day-trippers, so more customers, even on weekdays. The Olympics had positive effects: More customers! More publicity!”
But in Maven Coffee Roasters – a stylish, artisanal coffee shop, complete with a cosy fireplace on the ground floor and a sun garden on the roof, owner Park Hyo-won is disappointed.
“Since the Olympics, things have got worse: tourists don’t stay overnight because of the KTX,” he said. “The economic situation in the city has gone down as people don’t buy local products.” With Seoul now so accessible, middle-class Gangneungites shop there, he explained. His shop did 300,000 won ($268) of business, on days before the Olympics. Now it is 200,000 won.
Maven’s neighborhood, Imjeong Street – a quiet, low-rise district of cafes, independent shops and old homes – did not benefit the way Gangneung’s traditional markets and downtown area did, Park said. He and fellow business owners are now organizing cultural events – “fireside chats,” live music and handicrafts – benchmarking Seoul’s trendy Hongdae and Garosu-gil districts.
Four bespoke stadia were built in Gangneung for the Olympiad – for speed skating, men’s hockey, women’s hockey, plus a short-track and figure skating arena. Two have their futures assured.
The short track and figure skating stadium is now run by Gangneung City, for use as a general, rather than winter-sport facility. When Asia Times visited, it was being remodeled for an Olympic legacy event next week. The women’s hockey arena has been taken over by a local university.
The future of the men’s hockey stadium is not fully assured, but according to the cheerful Chong Son-in, who heads Gangwon Province’s team curating the Olympic venues, the Korea Hockey Association is bullish on the facility. It is being used for nine matches this season.
Chong’s big headache is the speed-skating stadium, which has hosted no events since the Games. Its future will be decided in June by a task force comprising the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the Ministry of Finance, and Gangwon Province. One plan is to use it as the national speed skating facility, but other options exist. “It would not be difficult to convert it,” Chong said, noting that suggestions include a concert space, an exhibition center, indoor tennis courts, an e-sports arena or even a drone soccer stadium.
“Citizens want to maintain these facilities,” Chong said. He expects the decision on the speed-skating stadium in June to be constructive. He has not seen any suggestion that it might be demolished. He also hopes that the “Olympic Memory Fund” of 100 billion won – profits made from the Games by the Organizing Committee – may also be deployed. “Please report positively!” he implored.
But if the post-Olympic sense in Gangneung seems largely positive, one hour’s drive away, up in the highlands of PyeongChang County, where 2018’s skiing events were held, the outlook is more cloudy.
The five-star Ramada Hotel – built after the Olympics just minutes from the site of PyeongChang’s 35,000-seat stadium – is evidence of post-2018 business optimism. While the hotel looked empty, the desk manager assured Asia Times that it was fully booked for the upcoming weekend and Chinese New Year’s holiday.
The nearby stadium, which hosted PyeongChang 2018’s spectacular opening and closing ceremonies, is no more. Designed to be collapsible, in order to leave no environmental footprint, it was, indeed, taken down. Now, the only sign on an empty, snow-dusted lot that a huge arena once stood here is a sculpture of a giant Olympic torch.
This may please environmentalists, but local businesses take a different view. “Just after the Olympics, tourists came here, but found that there is nothing to see, everything was demolished, and this became known,” said Lee Ki-tae of the 700 Coffee Shop, close to the empty stadium lot. “Now, nobody comes. We have fewer people than before.”
“The PyeongChang economy has not been good,” agreed Kim Yang-seop, manager of the nearby Human and Nature Ski Shop. While he acknowledged the Olympiad provided branding opportunities for Korea, it did not generate a winter sports boom. “At the resorts, you see the same number of people as before the Olympics,” he said.
Remaining facilities look melancholy. Amid rolling hills, looming starkly against a pewter sky, the impressive ski jump is still and silent.
Forlorn sights are visible on the rounds winding through the valleys. Like a horror-movie set, an abandoned motel, its glassless windows covered with torn posters for the Games, is occupied only by semi-feral dogs.
And a country restaurant, serving spicy dried fish and honeycomb wine, is empty of diners.
Legacy vs nature
The most controversial Olympics facility is the longest piste, the Alpine ski slope. To create the slope, at a cost of 100 billion won, 78 hectares of mountainside was stripped. Among the vegetation were 278 trees, aged 500 years – among Korea’s oldest. The plan was to return the ancient trees to the slope, post-Games, but environmentalists say most of the ancient trees died. Absent the trees, the plan now looks uncertain.
At the foot of the slope stands the impressive Park Roche Hotel. Its vast lobby, complete with blazing hearth, is empty. Staff decline to discuss occupancy rates.
Behind the hotel is a handful of shipping containers scrawled with graffiti that says: “Don’t ruin the Olympic legacy by pretending to protect the environment!” Inside the containers are some half a dozen protesters from Bukpyeong-myeon Residents’ Association.
They are angry. Their village formerly comprised 35 houses. Now, only 11 remain. “The government told us there would be prosperity and a boom, but everything has remained the same,” said protester Kim Jin-pyo. “Because of government policy, there are no tourists, no artificial snow. All tourism has stopped.”
The protesters are angry at the flip-flopping policy. Having bulldozed nature to craft the piste, the national government’s plan is now to dismantle the gondola and chairlift to reforest the slope.
“We want to keep the gondola so old people can go up,” added Jeon Yong-pyo, another demonstrator. “The government destroyed nature here, so we might as well use it.”
Uphill, beyond the containers, all is silent. The gondola is motionless, the slope a moonscape. The topsoil is gone. In places, the scree is held down by tarpaulins. Absent of artificial snow, all is grey and brown. It is difficult to imagine a more depressing contrast to the spectacle that took place here just one year ago.
“In the end, we got nothing from the Olympics. Our village got nothing, we lost everything,” Jeon said. “The IOC should choose responsibly when it selects locations.”