Transnational Teach-in: Environmental Destruction in Pyeongchang

By Naomi Williams

On June 13, NOlympics LA hosted the second event in its “Stop Playing Games” transnational teach in series, titled “Olympic Disaster: Environmental Destruction in Pyeongchang.” As opposed to the first teach-in, which was a panel discussion, this teach-in was a presentation by Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance organizer Morae River. The presentation focused on the history of the Olympics in South Korea and the environmental degradation that was caused by the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games. Spike Friedman, an organizer with NOlympics LA, was the moderator and opened the evening with an introduction. He discussed the influence of the Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance on the work of NOlympics LA and the opportunity to meet the group last summer in Tokyo. “In learning from our Korean comrades there were so many specific instances that triggered a new understanding of the work we need to do in LA,” Friedman stated to the audience of over 50 people. “It is only by meeting and learning from our comrades in Korea that we have been able to grow our work here [in Los Angeles].” 

River began the presentation by contextualizing the Olympic Games within the history of Korea. The Olympics are often linked to anti-imperialism and the Korean liberation movement because of the case of Sohn Kee-Chung. Kee-Chung was a Korean marathon runner who won the gold medal in 1936 and bore the Japanese flag on his chest, because Korea was under Japanese colonial rule at the time. A newspaper called Dong-Ah erased the Japanese flag from his chest when they ran a picture of him. As a result, the editor and about 40 staff members were jailed and tortured. The magazine was then shut down. Thus, the Olympics are linked to the anti-imperialist movement for Korean people. In 1980, after the uprising and massacre of pro-democracy protestors in the city of Gwangju, the military government of Chun Doo-Hwan took the advice of Japanese right-wing war criminal Sejima Ryujo and the President of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Koto Noboru to hold the Olympic Games, as a way to “tame” the Korean people. Seoul won the bid for the 1988 games, which resulted in mass evictions and displacement. From 1985 to 1988, over 700,000 people were evicted from Seoul and at least 30 evictees were killed. More recently, following the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in Gangwon Province, the province has been awarded the 2024 Youth Winter Olympics. Currently, North and South Korea are preparing a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics. 

Next, River guided the audience through the budget overruns of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. The government of Gangwon Province wanted to build a speed train even though it was not needed due to the small population size of the province. The Olympics were a great excuse for them to build the train anyway. In 2011, the estimated budget for the Pyeongchang Games was $8 billion, but by 2018, that number had increased to $13 billion. The budget included $2 billion for Games operation costs, $2 billion for sports facilities construction, and $9 billion for infrastructure construction. Within the infrastructure construction budget, $4 billion went to the speed train and $5 billion went to building new highways. The overall income from the Games was $1 Billion, creating a deficit of $12 billion. According to River, even the National Budget Assembly Office stated “The government and Gangwon province abuse the international sports games as an opportunity to build infrastructure.”

Lastly, River discussed the environmental devastation of the Pyeongchang Olympics. She specifically focused on the devastation to Mount Gariwang. In 2008, Mount Gariwang was declared a protected reserve area by the government. Then in 2011 South Korea got the bid for the 2018 Games. That same year the Senate passed the “Olympics Special Bill” which gave a pass to developers to skip the economic feasibility evaluation and the environmental impact assessment for their projects. To build the alpine ski slopes, the government lifted the protection of the forest reserve. The result was that 58,000 trees were cut down. The Olympics Special Bill is valid until 2032 and, River explained, will likely lead to accelerated real estate speculation and gentrification.

After the presentation, the Q&A section yielded fruitful conversations on the connection between the Special Bill for Pyeongchang and LA 2028. In California, the Olympics are exempt from environmental protection laws. Stadium construction for the Olympics is exempt from any sort of environmental assessment and there are proposals to expand this exemption to all projects related to the Olympic Games. Fortunately, that process is stalled right now. Teach-in attendees asked River and other members of the Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance about media representation and the challenges of spreading awareness about the negative impacts of the Olympics. River and other organizers named a couple of different obstacles that they have had to face. First, the obsession of many Korean people with sports. In 2002, an entire mountain was destroyed for the World Cup and environmental activists did not speak out against it because of how much people love sports. Over the course of the group’s outreach, the Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance encountered a lot of anger at the mere suggestion that the Olympics are bad. Also, they have had to fight against the popular media narrative that connects the Olympics to nationalism and glory. In addition, the critiques that the Olympics are not profitable and destroy the environment are drowned out by the Korean Peace Movement. Many leftists are not critical of the Olympics because they present an opportunity to work in conjunction with North Korea, which is seen as good for the Korean Peace Movement. As a result, it is very hard to mobilize people in opposition to the Olympics.

 The final question(s) called for the deepest reflection: “Why abolition? Why are we a part of this transnational effort to abolish the Olympics? Why are we not asking for reform?” River responded by stating that we should be thinking about the Olympics because it gives the wrong messages around gender and disability. It distorts the concept of disabilities to separate able bodied people and disabled people. It reinforces the gender binary and excludes people who are outside of it. It also promotes individualism over the needs of the community. Another organizer added that “a lot of people talk about the right not to be evicted and environmental destruction as two separate issues. It is important to think of these issues as one. The logic of displacing people for economic benefits is the same logic that applies to environmental destruction. It is all connected.” In addition, they stated that it is important to resist the frame that there is one single answer to the societal problems in South Korea. A lot of people believe that the Olympics will create peace between North and South Korea and that idea must be resisted. 

The next teach in in the “Stop Playing Games” series is scheduled for June 27th at 12pm PST and will feature organizers from NON aux JO2024 à Paris talking about their opposition to the Paris 2024 Olympics.