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 Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle

Thirty years of business and countless friends have taught me to love Korean people. Like many Japanese, I admire their open character, bold spirits and strong guts. What I still fail to grasp time after time is their complex nationalism and seemingly crazy politics. Once again, they created Olympic games in the middle of nowhere with such impressive opening spectacle mixing computer graphics into the cold reality, then spoiled it by the outright political play around it.

For me, what went on there last few days was the most outright misuse of the 120 year old sport tradition for political end since Berlin 1936. Politics are supposedly banned from Olympics, but it all happened with full blessing of IOC its chairman sitting in with the politicians at the VIP box and every tv-show before and after. The way North Korea, who has been threatening neighbors and the whole world with its tests of intercontinental missiles and nuclear weapons, was totally whitewashed and how South president "kowtowed" in front of their emissaries was simply appalling. Mr. Moon's ever-present smile to them and all other leaders same time spelled spelled "slime" for me.

Understand South was paying ransom not to make its second Olympics into another Munich 1972: every time North has NOT been invited to join the party it has attacked and killed its neighbors one way or other: bombing an airliner, sinking a ship, even trying to kill South president – by suicide squad in 1965 and by bomb attack in 1983. But why the proud South's leader had to throw himself so low on the ground in front of the blackmailer? Happily, the political play is now off the screens and we can focus on sports on our TV, yet let's try to go through a bit what's behind this all in "The Land of Peace".

Mixing sports and politics has long history in Korea – and IOC has played part in it. Already in 1963 - just 10 years after the Korean War ended in the shaky armistice that still prevails today – IOC urged South and North to form a joint Olympic team for Tokyo 1964 as East and West Germany had agreed to do that. Nothing came out of it and neither from next effort for Los Angeles 1984, but once Seoul itself was awarded the 1988 Olympics, the effort was doubled up. In talks sponsored by IOC, North "accepted" to join in a unified team – IF half of the events were shifted to Pyongyang, the name changed to Pyongyang-Seoul Olympics and the unified team would have equal numbers from North and South bypassing any individual merits. "If one gives little finger to North, they take the whole hand", said the South president at the time. When South did not accept all its demands, North boycotted the games and Korean Air Lines plane was brought down with 104 passengers and 11 crew. Now that Mr. Moon gave the stage for North's theatrics, it was clear the Kim dynasty would take over the whole show. They sure did.

Considering such history it is understandable that South would take every precaution to avoid disturbance from the North in its precious games. Seoul government has paid USD 13 billion – not much less than the much criticized Tokyo 2020 budget - to build its Olympics into the poorest town of its poorest region with little natural snow cover and little earlier exposure to winter sports. Not only most snow there was created artificially, but a high-speed train line and a highway from the capital were built with 97 tunnels and 78 bridges together with all sports facilities, ice rinks, ski slopes and jumps, none of which existed before and many will not any more after the games. The infrastructure building sounds not unlike Nagano 1998 but there's a marked difference: Nagano prefecture was a well-known ski area with plenty natural snow and countless "ski jo" well before 1998. In fact, skiing in Japan started there 100 years before. The Nagano highway remains today heavily congested every ski season weekend and the Shinkansen line has been now extended to equally popular travel spot Kanazawa at Japan Sea side making the train line the best booked and profitable behind the Tokyo-Osaka main line. In Pyeongchang, any extension would take the train to North side.

Mixing sports with politics is a tradition in the nationalistic South even without North. Athletes are rewarded generously for international success with government money and young males are relieved from the dreaded two year military service. Without wide talent in winter sports – all of South's Olympic medals have been won in skating, mainly strange short track – South went all over to look for more for their games. In addition to sudden addition of North hockey players to its team, no less than 19 new "Koreans" were added to Korean Olympic team, some with distant blood connection like being born there but sold for adoption, some without any, just taking money to become Koreans in order to realize their dream to participate in Olympics. So Aileen Frisch, who did not fit into German luge team, became Korean and American Marissa Brandt, adopted to US as child, became Park Yoon-jung to play Olympic ice hockey when she did not fit into US team with her sister Hannah. IOC rules say athletes, who change nationality must wait 3 years before allowed to participate in Olympics, but this was waved for Korea.

Throw in the gigantic "chaebol" business groups in the mix. Many say Pyongchang Olympics are not "Pyeongchang Games" but actually "Samsung Games". The electronic giant's CEO serving 6 months prison sentence for his financial help to the previous president, was suddenly paroled last week by the president as the games approached. No wonder as it was his father, the old Samsung chairman, who started the drive for the Olympics back in 2003: he was an IOC member and when his colleagues arrived to Prague to vote for next Olympics, the whole town was decorated in Samsung banners and the company sponsored sport events and music concerts for them. It didn't work so new effort was made for the 2014 games, but Putin's money proved too much then. Chairman's IOC membership was revoked for a while when he was sentenced to prison for tax evasion, but reinstated one year later when he was paroled by that time South president so he could continue to pursue his Olympic quest.

Samsung inked big sponsorship agreements with global sports organizations and Mr. Lee urged his friends, who owned Korean Airlines and Hyundai to do same. They were combined in their determination to get the 2018 Olympics to Korea as well as in that they were all sentenced, then paroled for tax crimes. "We are here to put on authentic games, not to get a trophy to a company or a country", old Mr. Lee declared to his equally old IOC colleagues at the conference about to decide where the games would go. The decision went to Pyeongchang and now Samsung has donated 4,000 mobile phones to all participants, Hyundai same number of cars for use during the games. I am sure that Korean Air has also supported the games generously as well as benefitted from them. At least the company must have provided its famous peanuts there – properly served, of course.

All of this would not matter that much – it seems corruption is as common in global sport organizations as it is in Korean business and politics – if it was not for the critical security situation with North where interests of other nations, not least USAfs and Japanfs, and the credibility of UN are seriously involved. There's no doubt president Moon's immediate acceptance of North's invitation for a follow-up conference in Pyongyang, despite all his assurances not to fall into North's trap, has badly shaken the US-Korea-Japan alliance. In face of what we see in media, USA has been played into role of Bad Guy, who only disturbs the otherwise harmonious situation in the peninsula, and the White House team is in total confusion having been caught its pants down with one official contradicting another how to respond. Abe-san has been caught in it as well having politically put all his eggs with Mr. Trump. Otherwise he must be already used to Koreans changing their stand on agreements. Maybe Moon will change his tune once again when the meeting in Pyongyang will not bring any benefit for South? Maybe the political value of managing to get a meeting in North, just as he said he would try to do if elected, is enough for him? Only two South presidents have managed to score such popular goal: Kim Dae Jung, who earned Nobel Peace Prize for it – it was only later learned he paid a lot of money to North for the show – and Roh Tae Wo, who was afterwards driven to suicide by the next regime. Guess Moon-san rather targets the first alternative whatever his means are.

What really matters now is what will be the reaction from the erratic US president: will he blow his top or will he somehow turn his coat to accept talk terms with North even if it sticks to its nuclear weapons? Hope his minders will persuade him to stay quiet until the games are over, so we can enjoy the sports for all they're worth. At the moment of writing, Japan has already scored 4 medals and Finland 2 and more are likely to follow.

Let's allow sports shine through these two weeks before the murky politics take the world attention again. It's Valentine's Day today, too, so let's show some love to each other.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, February 14, 2018  

Previous Columns

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

20 December 2017
"Look back at 2017: commotion around Japan, but steady and safe here"

11 December 2017
"Missiles, footballers and fishermen from North - Big spending on child care to get more mothers working"

28 November 2017
"Foolish things sell in retail, but sports are to be serious"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

10 November 2017
"Good news week: Finland business grows, EU trade deal gets cleared, Nikkei hits new heights and Trump visit goes smoothly"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

1 November 2017
"Japan: Endless Discovery"

21 October 2017
"Power play in Japan and elsewhere - some potentially serious, some not"

10 October 2017
"Abe's useless snap election sparks big changes he did not count on"

26 September 2017
"North Korea boost Abe popularity - opportunity to extend his rule"

7 September 2017
"Kims'allah, Japan is OK and doing well"

28 August 2017
"From North Korea's missiles to Turku Terror and US Navy Mishaps"

17 August 2017
"Raining cats and dogs, missiles and threats, but strong sunshine in economy"

27 July 2017
"Forests, floods, fish and consumer prices - stories too good and data too bad to be true"

21 July 2017
"From Cool Finland to Hot Tokyo: A Round-Up of Recent Happenings"

26 June 2017
"Anniversaries and Memories: Finland, Japan, USA."

19 June 2017
"Rainy Season in Japan, Political Storms in Europe"

8 June 2017
"Trump impact spreads - Japan struggles with workforce issues"

30 May 2017
"Taormina to Tokyo: Heavyweights and fashionable ladies"

"New Missiles, Diet Debates, Yet Big Business in Big Profits - Down on Ground Challenges Remain Basic and Simple"

9 May 2017
"Golden Week, Special Trains, Luxury Spending, Even North Worries Makes for Good Business"

20 April 2017
"North Korea, USA both worry Japan - Koike worry Abe and LDP even more"

5 April 2017
"Spring, Sakura and New Year Start in Japan - Commotion, Tensions Rise Around the World"

27 March 2017
"Questions Unanswered, Unasked – Lifestyle and Surveys Bring Light"

21 March 2017
"Finland in Focus: Friendship, Dictionary, Music, Food - Even Elevators?"

13 March 2017
"Uncertainty Increases Around Japan - At Home Rebuilding Uncompleted in 6 Years - Abe Popularity Takes a Hit."

3 March 2017
"Book Readers, Police Jokes, Nerdy Napoleon and Poison Scare"

24 February 2017
"Populism, Ignorance and Isolationism Leads to Mayhem and Mess"

16 February 2017
"Golf Diplomacy, Chocolate Festa and Hokkaido Deams-Come-True"

9 February 2017
"Tokyo overcoming winter, business changes, political battle and Trump threats "

2 February 2017
"Warm Feelings in Japan, Wild Winds from USA"

20 January 2017
"Ready for Rooster? It will be a wild ride!"

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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