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The Korean Peninsula's sports wars

THE average American may be excused for not knowing that the Asian Games are being held in Seoul. The United States news media have paid scant attention to them. Even a terrorist bombing at Kimpo Airport on the eve of the games, which killed five, was not enough to focus the West's attention on the games. But we should pay close attention to them, because they are a precursor of international problems at the 1988 Olympics and a barometer of political dilemmas in Korea. Sport events are often described as metaphors for war, Clauswitzian venues for struggles transferred from the battlefield to the playing field. Viewed in terms of North-South Korean tensions, the ``sports wars'' metaphor verges on literalism. Two Korean states are waging a new form of the battle each has pressed for years.

A heavily armed stalemate has perpetuated a precarious division of the Korean Peninsula since the Korean war. During that period South Korea gradually emerged as the more prosperous and dynamic of the two -- earning -- as one of many expressions of kudos -- the honor of being host to these Asian Games and the '88 Olympics. For many South Koreans these show their country's increased acceptance as an important actor in international affairs. The games, especially the Olympics, will turn the spotlight on South Korea in ways comparable to the 1964 Olympics' significance for Japan.

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The obvious loser in this surrogate for war is North Korea. Despite Pyongyang's diplomatic obstructionism and complaints, the 1986 Asiad appears successful. This is no surprise to anyone who has watched South Korea prepare for the current games. They are clearly a dress rehearsal for the main event in 1988, and Seoul has gone all out for both. Many parts of the city have been transformed almost beyond recognition. North Korea has done nothing to earn a share of being Olympic host, although -- if it does nothing further to disrupt them -- Seoul may yet allow some sharing of events in a magnanimous political gesture designed both to generate goodwill and exert leverage in periodic North-South bargaining.

Despite the fa,cade of such a political gesture, it can only rub salt into the wounded pride of North Koreans. South Korea's apparent successes in the trial run should not delude anyone into thinking North Korea will docilely accept this symbolic setback, any more than it has adjusted amicably to the economic and political gaps that South Korea's successes have imposed between their respective standings. Consequently, the coming years leading to the Olympics are extraordinarily dangerous. North Korea has survived past pressure episodes of the ``put up or shut up'' variety, but never under the media scrutiny that will soon be upon them.

Though some South Koreans are unhappy about the relatively sparse upbeat coverage of their emerging triumph over North Korea via sports diplomacy, they should count their blessings. Because the Asian Games rarely attract much non-Asian media attention, it is not surprising -- Olympics trial run or not -- that the Seoul games are drawing little attention. In this atmosphere, those reporters assigned to Seoul have focused on the games themselves and the facilities, not the domestic political sideshow evolving offstage. This will almost certainly change during the Olympics.

If South Korean politics remains as unsettled then as it is now, the Olympics will provide a priceless soapbox for opposition politicians and dissident activists to appeal to global opinion. Still more ominous is the radical domestic sentiment in favor of subverting these sports events because of their role in helping to legitimize the Chun government in Seoul. In sharp contrast to the Asian Games' relatively low profile and well-defined sports-oriented reportage, the numerous journalists who will flock to Seoul two years hence will clamor for juicy material to prepare background and human-interest items. If South Korea cannot resolve its political problems by then, any diplomatic gains it might hope to make at North Korea's expense or positive publicity about the South's advances could readily be wiped out by negative coverage of domestic social conditions. On this score, too, the political events leading up to the Olympics promise to be a source of uncertainty and concern.

As South Korean leaders cope with their annoyance that the Asian Games are not generating the kind of overwhelmingly positive publicity for which they had hoped, they should look on the bright side. First, there has been little bad news spun off and, in South Korea's case, no bad news is good news. More important, the low-profile treatment accorded the Seoul Asian Games as precursor of the Seoul Olympics is an enormous, if subdued, compliment to South Korea. It tends to demonstrate the West's assumption that South Korea can be relied upon to succeed in these very complicated endeavors. Thus, low-key treatment of these ``sports wars'' is a strong reaffirmation of the West's confidence in South Korea's ability to prevail. Now it is up to Seoul to fulfill its mandate.

Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

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