How the Olympics of 1988 led to a social and political change in South Korea.

The 24th edition of the Olympics was held in South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, in 1988. There were 159 countries competing in 23 different types of sports. In total, 8.453 athletes competed for a gold, silver or bronze medal. Hodori the tiger was the mascot of the Seoul Olympics. The “Ho” of Hodori comes from the Korean word meaning “tiger”, while “Dori” is a common masculine diminutive. Hodori is associated with humour, bravery and nobility. Hodori wears the Olympic rings around his neck. On his head is a typical traditional Korean hat, the sangmo. The ribbon on the hat is in the shape of an “S” for Seoul, and appears in various forms.

The Seoul Olympics and North Korea’s input


Being the hosting country for the Olympics was a big deal for South-Korea. There was a lot of tension between South-Korea and their Northern Neighbors, North-Korea. North-Korea did not like the idea of South-Korea being the host for the Olympics because that would put them in a good light in other countries, which eventually could lead to South-Korea gaining more alliances. North-Korea first tried to negotiate with South-Korea on being a co-host of the Olympics, but after getting declined, North-Korea tried to sabotage the games. One of the most tragic attempts on sabotaging the Olympics was the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858.  In 1987, on November the 29th, two North-Korean spies named Kim Hyon Hui and Kim Sung Il boarded on the Korean Air Flight 858 from Baghdad to Seoul. Armed with a bomb disguised as a radio, the spies blew up the plane while it was in the air again after a layover in Abu Dhabi killing all 115 passengers that were on board. Once the two spies got tracked down by the South-Korean authorities, they tried to commit suicide by smoking cyanide cigarettes. Sung Il’s attempt was successful and died, Hyon Hui however did not succeed and was extradited to South-Korea. South-Korea charged North-Korea for the bombing. North-Korea denied the bombing and tried to gather her allies, the Sovjet Union and China, to call for a boycott. Both countries however did not listen. With the Olympics being a few months away, North-Korea tried to make their own version of the Olympics called the World Festival of Youth and Students. The country put 4 billion US Dollars into this festival. A stadium called the May Day stadium was specially made for this event and can hold up to 150,000 visitors.


Social and Political change

When speaking about the Seoul 1988 Olympics you cannot leave out the social and political change that was happening before and during the time. The Olympics was the country’s attempt to bring a new image of South Korea as a developed and thriving country to the rest of the world. The publicity that would happen from the event would be invaluable hence why it was important to keep a good reputation before and during it. Unfortunately things were not that simple for government leaders. 

On June 10, the military regime of President Chun Doo-hwan announced its choice of Roh Tae-woo as the next president. Although pressure on the regime, in the form of demonstrations by students and other groups, had been building for some time, the announcement finally triggered massive and effective protests. Students and many other parties such as workers and lower class citizens joined the protests. 

The June democratic struggle also known as the June democratic uprising and June democratic movement was a nationwide democracy movement in South Korea that generated mass protests from June 10 to June 29, 1987. It aimed to overthrow the military dictatorship that S.Korea was under at that time and since 1979. Hundreds of people took to the streets in demonstration and they received massive support with women bringing protestors food and water and taxi drivers honking and waving in solidarity. As time went on more and more people joined even white collar workers. (신문방송사, 2020)

Park Jong-chol and Lee-Han yeol were two students whose deaths inspired the voice of a revolution and further bravery to persevere for the cause. Mr. Park, a linguistics student at Seoul National University,died while being questioned by policemen about the whereabouts of a campus radical leader. He died of shock, the authorities initially said. Then, as questions arose in the press and as an attending physician reported contradictory findings, they acknowledged that the young man had been tortured. The policemen had shoved his head several times into a tub of water. In one of those dunkings Mr. Park's throat was crushed against the rim of the tub. He was suffocated and died of his injuries. (Marshall, 2017)

Lee-Han Yeol, was a student during a protest. The military often attempted to control people using tear gas and Lee-Han yeol was unfortunate enough to have been hit directly in the head with a tear gas grenade. Lee Han Yeol suffered a severe impact from the tear gas canister and was taken to Yonsei University hospital in a critical condition. His head suffered massive bleeding that flowed to his face and on 5 July 1987, Lee Han Yeol died. Lee Han Yeol's name is still remembered by the people of South Korea and is enshrined in the 'Lee Han-Yeol' Memorial Museum located in Seoul, South Korea. (Marshall, 2017)

Unwilling to resort to violence before the 1988 Olympic Games, and (correctly) believing that Roh could win competitive elections anyway given divisions within the opposition, Chun and Roh agreed to the demands of direct presidential elections and restoration of civil liberties. Although Roh was elected as president that December the democratic consolidation of South Korea was fully underway. Even though Chun was the one who put forward the bid to have the Olympics in Seoul he was not president during the events. (DBpedia, 2021)


Anti-American sentiment

During the 1988 Seoul Olympics there were elements of anti-American sentiment from the Koreans. Some were seen to be booing into the crowd at American athletes. Americans were very unhappy with this as it can be seen as ungrateful and distasteful given that the US has helped South Korea in the past. But why were Koreans upset? (Yates, 1988)

Well there were reports that Americans were showing coverage of the “dark side” of Korea in news and shows during the Olympics. Topics such as sweatshops, prostitution or foreign adoption of Koreans. As well as that they were mainly focusing on “shocking” incidents that happened such as a disruption during a boxing match when punches and chairs were thrown over a dispute with a referee. All of these things showed South Korea in a very negative light and many citizens felt it was unfair and simply wrong especially during such an important and global event such as the Olympics. Citizens and government officials complained to the American channel NBC about this and the dispute had to be settled. (Kim, 1989)

Even given this situation the general public or the majority did not have a distaste for Americans and it was reported that many South Koreans and Americans had very pleasant interaction during the Olympics showing the continuation of good relations among the two. 


Britannica. (2021, September 10). Seoul 1988 Olympic Games. Retrieved from Britannica:

Chira, S. (1988, September 28). The seoul olympics: U.S olympic reporting hits a raw korean nerve. Retrieved from The New York Times:

DBpedia (2021,October 10). June Struggle. Retrieved from DBpedia:

Hiatt, F. (1988, October 8). Olympics inflame strain in U.S - Korea relations. Retrieved from The Washington Post:

Journal, A. P. (2007, June 04). democracy and Peace in Korea Twenty Years After June 1987: Where Are We Now, and Where Do We Go from Here? Retrieved from Asia Pacific Journal:

Kim, J. (1989). Recent anti-Americanism in South korea. Asian survey, pp. 749-763 .

Lakey, G. (2009, June 10). South Koreans win mass campaign for democracy, 1986-87. Retrieved from Global nonviolent action database:

Marshall, C. (2017, December 31). Korean Cinema Looks Back at 1987, When students died and democracy was born. Retrieved from LARB Blarb:

Wikipedia. (2021, September 13). 1988 Summer Olympics. Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Yates, R. E. (1988, September 29). Koreans fan anti U.S feelings at Olympics. Retrieved from Chicago Tribune:

신문방송사, 국. (2020, 06 01). How the June struggle for democracy ushered in democracy into Korea. Retrieved from Kookmin University:

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