South Korea’s First Major Sporting Event—and Why It Never Took Place

South Korea's president, Park Chung Hee, believed the 1970 Asian Games were too costly. But there were other reasons South Korea ultimately did not host the 6th Asian Games.

North Korean military provocations derailed Seoul’s plans to host the 1970 Asian Games

Sporting events on the Korean Peninsula have a tendency to become highly political.

Most recently, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics allowed South Korea and North Korea to calm tensions on the peninsula and to deliberate over a possible reunification sometime in the future. Simultaneously, the Games served to illustrate South Korea’s respectable position within the international community and North Korea’s status as an outsider.

In this sense, the 2018 Winter Games were not much different from a number of earlier, major sporting events taking place south of the demarcation line:  the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988, the Asian Games events in 1986, 1999, 2002, and 2014, and the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2002 (co-hosted with Japan). The corresponding negotiations between the North and South Korean governments, the displays of hard and soft power, the pompous public events (sometimes featuring cooperation between South and North Korean athletes), and also commercial interests should not draw attention away from one very important fact: all these games actually took place.

In contrast, the Sixth Asian Games in 1970, the first big international sporting event that South Korea attempted to host, never materialized.

The Games in Seoul, scheduled to include a large number of delegations from pro-American and non-aligned Asian countries, would have been a boon to South Korea’s international credentials. The transactions of the Special Council Congress  of the Asian Games Federation—the body which administered the Asian Games since the first event in New Delhi 1951, now called the Olympic Council of Asia—show why the event eventually shifted to Bangkok.

During the Fifth Asian Games in Bangkok 1966, Seoul was elected to host the games’ sixth installment planned for 1970. But as early as 1967, rumors spread that South Korea was having problems planning for the event. Initially, the Straits Times and other regional newspapers reported that South Korean president Park Chung Hee had come to the conclusion that the Games would be too expensive and would distract from his other economic priorities.

Transactions from the Special Council Congress show that, in 1968, the president of South Korea’s National Olympic Committee provided another, much more drastic reason. He explained that:

since mid-summer of 1967, daily infiltrations into the Republic of Korea grew in intensity until January 21 this year (1968)[,] when 31 North Korean Communist soldiers, each of them fully armed[,] reached nearly 300 meters from [sic] the Presidential Residence of Chung Hee Park of the Republic of Korea. Their sole suicidal mission was to annihilate every occupant in the Presidential Residence, including the President himself.

These daily infiltrations—the one specifically mentioned featuring an assassination attempt—had already resulted in the complete closure of the demilitarized zone to tourists. Altogether, these tensions brought on by North Korea meant that even the South Korean dictatorship could not guarantee safety and security at the Games, including for foreign participants.

(As was demonstrated some years later, international sporting events could indeed serve as a platform to gain massive media attention through terrorism and violence. In 1972, during the so-called “Munich Massacre,” Arab terrorists managed to murder a large number of members of Israel’s Olympic team. Before that, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, no such violence occurred, but the People’s Republic of China had used the media focus on Japan to detonate its first nuclear bomb, hardly an act appreciated by the Japanese.)

The games ultimately took place for a second time in Bangkok, the capital of another pro-American dictatorship also facing a massive cross-border conflict, this time due to the Vietnam War.

The transactions of the Asian Games Federation from May 1968 reveal that only Japan and Thailand were considered to be viable candidates to host the Sixth Asian Games without delay. The Japanese, however, declined since they were already hosting the upcoming Expo ’70 in Osaka and the 1972 Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo.

At first, the Thai government was also reluctant to come to the aid of the South Korea, in part because Thailand had already saved the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games of 1967. More important, on June 10, 1968, the Thai dictator Thanom Kittikachorn explained to a desperate Asian Games Federation subcommittee that hosting the 1970 Games would be financially impossible because of a “daily increase of Communist infiltrations into Thailand, which entailed increased expenditure.”

Thailand’s security and financial woes were apparently papered over, in part to due to Seoul’s largesse. South Korea agreed to provide a substantial sum of money to Thailand, and other member countries also pledged financial support. The authority over the Sixth Games was then formally transferred from South Korea’s organizers to Thailand’s.

The leadership in Seoul would not try to host another large international sporting event until 1986 and 1988, by which time Cold War geopolitics in East Asia had radically changed, South Korea had turned into a major economic power, and the country had begun to transition from an authoritarian military regime to a democracy. Altogether, the new geopolitical situation facilitated hosting sporting events, especially because the North Korean government during the late 1980s was less willing to disrupt them than it had been during the late 1960s.

Stefan Huebner is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. In spring 2018, he is a Fulbright scholar at the Harvard University Asia Center. He is the author of Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 (Singapore, 2016).
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