YOU cannot go very far in South Korea without running into Hodori, the saucy, smiling tiger who is the mascot of the 1988 Olympic Games. Hodori is everywhere - on posters, and spoons, and napkins, and ties, and everything else that can be used to publicize and commemorate the games. Downtown in Seoul, a great electric clock ticks off the days that must elapse before the games begin in September of next year.
On the banks of the Han River that flows through Seoul, a great sports complex is being readied. Tall apartment buildings are underway to house the 13,000 athletes and 6,000 journalists who will be involved. Visitors who stay downtown will ride out to the games on a modern subway system.
All this is part of the national fervor that has gripped South Korea as it prepares to host the 1988 Olympics. There is more to this fervor than just the realization that South Korea will be in the international spotlight. There is a pride in the country's achievements and a belief that the Olympics mark South Korea's transition from underdeveloped country to a modern industrial power.
That is why the governing regime is particularly anxious that the Olympics should go off without disruption from either inside the country, or outside.
Inside, the threat is from demonstrators, particularly students, protesting the authoritarian nature of the regime and the stalled pace of movement toward constitutional reform and civilian rule. The government is dominated by the military and President Chun Doo Hwan earlier this year postponed constitutional reform until after the Olympics.
The regime well understands that major demonstrations, or student riots, could deter thousands of tourists from coming to the games. Thus it will take strict security measures to prevent such demonstrations in the vicinity of the Olympic site.
The external threat comes from North Korea, from which South Korea is divided by the demilitarized zone. There is no intelligence suggesting a frontal North Korean assault, but the North Koreans could foment sabotage and incidents that would similarly deter foreign visitors from attending the games. ``They could,'' says one military man, ``light up the demilitarized zone.''
Although the two regimes are ideologically poles apart, a number of nations, the United States included, are urging dialogue between the two. The argument is that if they talk to each other, military confrontation is less likely.
Accordingly, there is debate as to whether North Korea can somehow participate in the Olympics. North Korea has demanded that eight of the 23 sports be scheduled in its capital of Pyongyang. South Korea has offered two - table tennis and archery, plus preliminary rounds of soccer and a bicycle race through the demilitarized zone. North Korea is getting little moral or political support from its allies in China or the Soviet Union. All indications are that they are going to attend the Olympics in Seoul whatever the North Koreans decide. Only the Cubans have so far said they will boycott the Olympics if the North Koreans do not take part.
Given tensions between North and South Korea, the prospect of thousands of athletes, newsmen, and spectators trundling across the demilitarized zone is more than the imagination can conceive. Even more fanciful is the thought of the alternative - the same small army commuting between Seoul and Pyongyang via, say, Japan and China.
However this particular aspect turns out, the Olympics loom large in South Korea. A North Korean attempt to disrupt them could bring the nation to the brink of war. An internal attempt to disrupt them could cause the authoritarian regime in power to clamp down more harshly, setting back even more the prospect of constitutional reform.
Third of four columns on South Korea.