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Olympic promotional near Pyeongchang on Highway 50. Source: the author.

Pyeongchang: Quest for Revitalization

By:  Yung-Ju Kim


Amid the pastoral landscape, in one of the least developed provinces in South Korea, where agriculture and fishing are still the most ubiquitous industries, and a population that is experiencing an overall decline while struggling to keep up with a rapidly growing senior population – is a county, home to 40,000 residents who are gearing up for one of world’s most widely publicized international events.  Despite some of these challenges, the residents will have you focus on the positive aspects that their town has to offer: a pristine coastline, prized national parks, a 1400 year-old Buddhist temple that has remained intact and unharmed from fire or wars and an enviable food source that is highly sought after throughout South Korea.  This is Pyeongchang, the host of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics.

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1400 years-old Woljeongsa Temple in Mt. Odaesan. Source: the author.

Most people will wonder how a relatively unknown county in Gangwon-do province came to host the Winter Olympics, one of world’s most recognized sports franchise.  The story originates back to when Gak-gyu Choi, then governor of Gangwon-do in 1996 envisioned hosting the Winter Olympics as his humble province was preparing for the 1999 Asian Winter Games.  With the construction of new, high-performance venues already underway, Governor Choi set his ambitions higher with the Winter Olympics as his ultimate goal.  As part of his reconnaissance, he sent his Vice Governor Jin-Sun Kim to Nagano, Japan, as it was gearing up for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games.  When Vice Governor Kim became the succeeding governor, he made it his campaign promise to bring the Winter Olympics to Gangwon-do province in order to revitalize its deteriorating economy, and during his three terms as a very popular governor the residents, too, believed that hosting the Winter Olympics was the answer to reversing the many years of depopulation and economic decline.  No one, however, was prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.

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Townscape in Pyeongchang nearby the Olympic Stadium. Source: the author.

The mission to bring the Winter Olympics to Gangwon-do was an arduous task, which took three Olympic bids over the course of 12 years to accomplish.  The first Winter Olympic bid was lost to Vancouver by a small margin 56-53 on its second round of voting.  Despite the Pyeongchang Olympic Bidding Committee’s assiduous marketing efforts, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) mistook Pyeongchang as Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, and this lack of name recognition consequently leaned in favor of Vancouver.  The second Winter Olympic bid was lost to Sochi 51-47 also on its second round of voting.  While Pyeongchang’s name recognition had improved since the first bid, Vladimir Putin’s heavy handed involvement was no match for a provincial town led bidding committee.

After two losses to Vancouver and Sochi, the local residents, planners, and government at both the provincial and federal level left nothing to chance for their third Winter Olympic bid.  By this time much more were at stake: both chaebols[1] and international investors who had made hefty real estate investments were dealing with heavy losses; morale and the spirit of the Gangwon-do residents were riding on this third bid attempt; and the global strength and influence of the South Korean government were being tested by the Olympic bidding process.  In order to demonstrate to the IOC that Pyeongchang was not only a viable candidate but the strongest candidate for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, many projects were highlighted during the course of the Olympic bidding process:  the construction of Alpensia, a 5-star, $1.4 billion ski resort, that was to become the main hub of the Olympic Event and Planning headquarters; the approval of the long-anticipated high-speed rail that would connect from Incheon International Airport to the Olympic venues — essentially reducing the travel time between South Korea’s east and west coast by 50%; and a slew of international winter sports competitions to be hosted in Pyeongchang which showcased their Olympic-caliber venues and ability to host large-scale, international events.

Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Bidding Committee’s efforts were rewarded when Pyeongchang won in the first round with the largest voting margin in history, 63-25-7, beating out both Munich, Germany and Annecy, France.

The news of the Olympic bid victory was received by the Pyeongchang residents with overwhelming joy and relief.  Over time, however, Pyeongchang was not immune to the challenges of Olympic planning and development.  Differing national and regional concerns from environment to economy turned the locals from being the strongest advocates to a group of dissidents.

5-star Intercontinental Hotel on Alpensia Resort. Source: the author.

Gangwon-do province is recognized as one of the most undeveloped provinces in South Korea. While on the one hand “undeveloped” has a rural connotation, Gangwon-do’s undeveloped terrain also emphasizes its pristine, untouched landscape.  As a consequence of the Winter Olympic development, the environmental impacts became one of the most contentious issues between Pyeongchang Organizing Committee Olympic Winter Games (POCOG) and the residents.  Among the string of environmental concerns was the felling of 500 year-old trees in Mount Gariwang.  Not only did the 23 hectares of clearance include ancient, rare species, but the area dates back to 15th century Chosun dynasty when the forest was used to grow and procure ginseng for their kings.  Not only is the Pyeongchang Olympics organizing committee’s promise of  restoring the habitat to its original state unrealistic and “patronizing,[2]” but the 58,000 trees which were home to endangered species of plants and birds were deforested for three alpine skiing events to be held over the course of 14 days will leave the area of ecological, historical, and cultural significance permanently scarred.

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Mount Gariwang before deforestation. Source: Corbis.
Mount Gariwang after deforestation / Jeongseon Alpine ski run. Source: author.
Mount Gariwang after deforestation / Jeongseon Alpine ski run. Source: author.

A second point of contention is the financial impact of the Winter Olympics.  While Gangwon-do remains second lowest income per capita province[3] in South Korea, the property values have increased 50% since the announcement of the winning bid and 80% remain non-resident owned[4].  Real estate speculations have only benefitted landowners while hurting long-time tenants, farmers and small business owners, who are now displaced and forced to seek a more affordable option elsewhere.   Another financial contention is the backlog of wages that have remained unpaid to the construction laborers.  Since January 2016 an amount totaling more than $3.5 million[5] are still due for those who have been building the Jeongseon Alpine Skiing Venue (in Mount Gariwang). These construction workers have remain unpaid, out of work, and are still disputing the back wages with the construction companies.

Despite the environmental and financial drawbacks, POCOG argues that the Winter Olympics development has been a catalyst for the long-awaited and much needed infrastructure projects such as the high-speed rail and the expansion of roads.  One of the reasons Gangwon-do has remained one of the least undeveloped provinces is because the region is 80% mountainous with much of it under government protection making the terrain both physically, financially, and legally difficult to build on.  The recent sanctions to develop the alpine ski run in Mount Gariwang and high speed rail through the mountains of Gangwon-do have been polarizing because it signifies that the once untouched landscape may be further developed forever altering the pristine surroundings; while on the other hand the much needed infrastructure may attract new investors who can help stimulate the province’s stagnant economy.

Last but not least, the question of what will become of the Olympic venues and who will maintain them after the Olympic event are yet to be answered. As of now neither the national or regional government have committed to taking on the financial responsibility of curating the venues.  In a recent interview with Wonjae Seo, PhD, Professor of Sports and Outdoors at Eulji University in Seoul, South Korea, who has actively worked with a committee in proposing various ways the Olympic venues can be adapted for reuse, strongly believes that the residents of the region should take ownership and accountability of how the venues should be used post-Olympic games because they, not the national government, have a better understanding of their own culture and the needs that can be fulfilled by the new Olympic venues.  But it can be challenging for a provincial town of 40,000 to curate several Olympic scale venues when curatorial responsibilities include not only proposing new ways for reuse but also securing sufficient funding for maintenance.

Gangneung Hockey Centre / Men’s Olympic Hockey Venue. Source: author.
Gangneung Hockey Centre / Men’s Olympic Hockey Venue. Source: author.

Nonetheless, POCOG is confident that the Winter Olympics will boost the region’s economy through tourism by elevating Pyeongchang’s global brand not only as a bonafide winter sports destination but the Olympic venues themselves can become a tourist attraction when modified into cultural and performance centers.  The idea is that these tourists can also be incentivized to visit other points of interests within the province such as the 1400 year-old Buddhist temple, pristine beaches, and the renowned national parks thereby allowing other regions outside the Olympic venues to also benefit from the potential tourism boom.  However, in an interview with a Gangneung resident, Jinwon Hoeng, Secretary General of Citizens Act — a NGO organization — who opposed the Winter Olympics since their first bid 12 years ago argues that the region’s culture is heavily ingrained in pastoral expertise not winter sports and points out that the majority of the regional land is still dedicated to agricultural activities.  He worries that the Olympic development has created a cultural imbalance by displacing farmers and causing irreparable environmental harm while introducing high economic risk by investing heavily in winter sports, which is neoteric to the region.

Interview with Gangneung resident Jinwon Hoeng. Source: author.
Interview with Gangneung resident Jinwon Hoeng. Source: author.

There are no easy answers to any of these issues.  The Olympic development is complex and involves many stakeholders to make it successful.  That is why the Olympics is undeniably a contentious and polarizing topic.  Yet one must not undermine the pride, excitement and solidarity that it still generates among the participating athletes, hosting community and international audience.  Whether or not the Winter Olympics will revitalize the deteriorating economy of Pyeongchang and its province of Gangwon will be difficult to measure for many years to come.  Rather than focusing on irreconcilable disputes, the residents, for now, are keeping their spirits up and committed to preparing and showcasing the best possible Winter Olympics to a global audience in February 2018 .

Olympic promotional signage as your enter Hoenggye from Highway 50. Source: author.
Olympic promotional signage as your enter Hoenggye from Highway 50. Source: author.



pyeongchang 11Yung-Ju Kim is a 2015-2016 Junior Researcher in South Korea researching the impacts of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and the surrounding communities.  Having grown up in a small border town in Laredo, Texas, Yung-Ju Kim has always been sensitive to cultural prejudice and rural town marginalization.  She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and Master of Architecture from The University of Texas at Austin.  Upon her return to U.S., Yung-Ju plans to complete a Master of Science in Historic Preservation at her alma mater.


[1] Large, conglomerate family-controlled firms with ties to the government

[2] Justin McCurry, and Emma Howard. 2015. “Olympic Organisers Destroy ‘Sacred’ South Korean Forest to Create Ski Run.” The Guardian, September 16, 2015.

[3] Korean Statistical Information Service.

[4] Kim, Jae-won. 2011. “Tax Agency to Probe Land Speculators in PyeongChang.” The Korea Times, July 20, 2011.

[5] Jung, Min-ho. 2016. “IOC Probes Labor Issues in PyeongChang.” The Korea Times, May 5, 2016.