The PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games give South Korea a unique opportunity to shine. Most pre-Olympic media coverage and commentary has understandably focused on the thaw in inter-Korean relations. During the games, most attention will rightly (and hopefully) concentrate on the great sporting achievements that all such events bring. But for South Korea, the games have a deeper meaning. They are an opportunity to consolidate and even improve the country’s image, promote its diplomatic agenda, and support economic growth in relatively impoverished Gangwon province.
Olympic games always provide hosts with a great public relations opportunity. For the duration of the games, the world media descends on the host country and city. Both are thus scrutinized in detail. Sometimes, hosts pass with flying colors. The Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, games showed the world that Japan, South Korea and China, respectively, had emerged as fairly modern countries. The winter games might not have the same reach, but they are nonetheless an opportunity for the host to present itself in a positive light; Nagano and Vancouver can attest to this.
In the case of South Korea, the PyeongChang extravaganza will be an opportunity to solidify its image as a modern and efficient country. Most casual observers still think of the North Korean nuclear issue when looking at the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, many Westerners untouched by K-pop and K-dramas would have trouble conceiving an image about contemporary South Korea – save perhaps their Samsung mobile phone or Hyundai car. If South Korea plays it right, the games will serve to confirm that it is a country that gets things done – something not to be taken lightly. Indeed, the usual pre-Olympic jitters about unfinished facilities and out of control costs have not affected the PyeongChang games. That is already a good start.
Equally relevant, the games present South Korea with an unparalleled opportunity to continue to press its middle power agenda. Properly launched by former President Roh Moo-hyun and supported by conservative and liberal governments alike, this agenda seeks to promote South Korea as an active player in international affairs whose foreign policy goes beyond North Korea. Successfully hosting the 2010 G20 and 2012 Nuclear Security summits helped to present Seoul as a voice to be heard in financial and security matters, respectively. Hosting the UN Office for Sustainable Development since 2011 has put South Korea at the center of sustainable development research and policy discussions. A cynic would argue that the games are but a sports competition. The fact that many cities continue to bid to host them shows that this is not the case. It should be remembered that PyeongChang defeated Munich and Annecy in the host selection process.
Indeed, a key component of South Korea’s middle power strategy is the use of soft power to create goodwill toward the country. Korean cultural centers, K-pop concerts, and film festivals are part of it. The PyeongChang games are as well. South Korea generated a very positive image during the 2002 World Cup, as millions across the world watched the country’s passionate but good-natured support for the national team. Similar behavior during the Olympic games would be worth dozens of concerts and festivals.
The economic opportunity brought by the games is another great potential benefit for South Korea. The Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET) puts the direct production-inducing effect at 20.5 trillion won or almost $19 billion. Even if the exact figure is difficult to gauge, PyeongChang and Gangwon Province, where it sits, are going to get a very significant economic boost from the tens of thousands of tourists, sportspeople, Olympic representatives, journalists, and others that will attend the games.
More importantly, the games are very likely to boost long-term tourism in the region. Nagano and Salt Lake City, also relatively small cities not necessarily well known before they hosted the winter Olympics, significantly increased tourism receipts in the years after the games. In the case of the American city, tourist revenues almost doubled from $4 billion the year before the games to $7.6 billion ten years after. As for its fellow Japanese Olympic host, Asian skiers pack the mountains where Alpine and Nordic skiing events were held every winter. PyeongChang could receive a similar boost, especially with the recent opening of a high-speed rail link to Seoul and Incheon airport. For a Moon Jae-in government bent on diversifying the South Korean economy away from its chaebols, this potential new source of economic growth would be very welcome.
For South Korea, the meaning of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games thus goes beyond a potential thaw in inter-Korean relations or the medals that the country’s speed skaters might win. Played right, the country has an excellent opportunity to bask in the positive public relations, diplomatic, and economic glories that games can bring.
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London.