How will the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018 change Korea?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Yesterday the announcement was made that Pyeongchang in Korea would be hosting the Winter Olympics in 2018, a welcome piece of news considering this was their third try.

Two things strike me as being interesting about hosting the Olympics in 2018. The first is the development of high-speed rail to connect Seoul and Pyeongchang by 2017. Korea already has high-speed rail, but the northeast (where Pyeongchang is) has always been ignored in terms of development and infrastructure. Korea is basically divided into four parts:

Northwest: the capital is here, so is Incheon, and so here is where everything happens. Government, economy, everything is gathered here.

Southeast: the second-largest city of Busan is here, along with a fairly large city called Daegu nearby. This was the first place to be connected by high-speed rail to the capital, and the movie industry does a lot of work here. The beaches here are also popular in the summer, since those in the northwest generally suck.

Southwest: a fairly large city called Gwangju is here. It's not as developed a region as the other two, but it holds its own.

Northeast: lots of mountains, no really large cities. Interestingly though, the climate here is probably the nicest in the country and the sea is really nice too. The mountains provide a lot of cover from the snow and wind in the winter if you are near the sea.

Going from Seoul to the far east of the country takes about 4-5 hours, either by highway or trundling along by train. And once you get there, there isn't much to do except look at nature and eat fish. Up until now it has been a bit of a catch-22: nobody lives there because it's hard to get there and there isn't much to do, it's hard to get there and there isn't much to do because nobody lives there.

One look at this map shows just how little attention the northeast receives:

Go a bit past the halfway point to the east and all of a sudden it's just mountains. Meanwhile the northwest to southwest and east are full of crisscrossing highways.

All that will change after 2017. All of a sudden it will take just 50 minutes to get from the capital to the east:

50 minutes is commuting distance, it makes Pyeongchang and the area around it into the easiest of day trips. Being directly connected to the capital region with its some 25 million people will change that part of the country in a way that it never would have without the Olympics.

There are quite a few papers on the economic benefits of the Shinkansen in Japan on cities that it ends up passing through, and that will provide some insight. The fact that this rail line will be going to a previously ignored part of the country is what is key here. If the Olympics had been the Summer Olympics and the host city somewhere like Daejeon or Gwangju, the effect on the country would not be half as notable.

The other obvious effect of the Olympics: much has been written on the increased Chinese influence in Asia, and whether ties between an increasingly stronger China will result in Country X or Country Y deciding to adopt a much stronger pro-Chinese stance than before, or learn Chinese along with / instead of English. With the Winter Olympics, we are likely to continue to see an English-oriented Korea. Take a look at the countries that took in the most medals last time:

#1 Canada, #2 Germany, #3 United States, #4 Norway, (#5 Korea), #6 Switzerland, #7 China, #8 Sweden, #9 Austria, #10 Netherlands, #11 Russia, #12 France, #14 Australia, #14 Czech Republic, #15 Poland, #16 Italy, #17 Belarus, #17 Slovakia, #19 Great Britain, #20 Japan, #21 Croatia, #21 Slovenia, #23 Latvia, #24 Finland, #25 Estonia, #25 Kazakhstan.

All of the countries in the top ten except China either use English as an official language or are very good at it as a second language. China is there in the top ten but it is certainly no dominating presence. Other world events are much less skewed towards English and Germanic countries: China always does great at the Summer Olympics, the World Cup has a lot of Spanish and the best soccer/football-playing country in the world speaks Portuguese. The Winter Olympics has primarily a cold, northern, Germanic and European-type atmosphere to it.

Not that English needs any more promotion in Korea, but the Olympics will certainly act as a buffer against any possible "let's all learn Chinese and get rich" mania that may strike at any time.


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