S. Korea proudly basks in the light of Olympic celebration. But for some, political realities still loom large

This is Korea's moment in the sun, and the nation's people want to share in it. Koreans were out in force yesterday, joining in Olympic celebrations. Families lined up for photographs in the Olympic sculpture park, many of them dressed in the traditional tent-like hanbok gowns. Thousands wandered through an international food fair on Seoul's giant plaza, best known for hosting massive political rallies during the heated campaigns of the last year.

Tomorrow the XXIV Olympiad will open in the graceful Olympic Stadium. Korean dancers will flow across the stadium floor as traditional drummers sound a driving beat. And for several hours - and the two weeks that follow - the world will be watching Seoul.

For most Koreans, this alone is enough to justify the years of hard work, the seemingly constant construction projects, and the disruptions of daily life that it took to get to this moment. For Koreans, the Olympics are a matter of pride.

``As a Korean, I'm very proud of it,'' deliveryman Kon So Hyun declares as he sits astride a motorbike in a working class area of Seoul. ``We will show off our economic development to the rest of the world.''

This is the face which Koreans have turned to the outside world. They are eager to claim, as President Roh Tae Woo did in an address to the nation this week, that ``with the Seoul Olympics, we will arrive at the threshold of the developed world, the entry to which has been our long-standing national goal.''

But there is at the same time a curious lack of excitement in Seoul. People express a sense of distance, as if they are standing apart from the Games themselves. For many Koreans, this coolness only reflects the reality that when the Games are over, they must still return to the struggles of their daily lives.

``It's great to have the Olympics but only a minority are really involved,'' a student at Seoul's prestigious Yonsei University comments. ``I don't see many people around me excited about it. Everybody says Korea is a good place to live but there are still a lot of people who are poor. ... They invested for the Games in hotels and restaurants, not in technology to build the country.''

The student's views are perhaps harsh. But many of South Korea's traditionally antigovernment students share a skepticism about the Olympics. Yonsei Student Association Vice-President Kim Man Soon expresses a widespread view that the Games will perpetuate the division of the country because of the failure to realize North Korea's participation. He accuses the government of using the focus on the event to ``stop the process of democratization'' which has otherwise dominated Korean life during the past year.

Small numbers of radical students have taken to the streets in recent days to manifest their opposition. But even Mr. Kim draws a line at those who seek to interfere with the Olympics itself. ``Those kinds of incidents will not help our cause,'' he says.

The lack of euphoria may also manifest the contentious character of Koreans. Fiercely independent in nature, Koreans chafe at being told what to do. ``Every day the government tells us through the media to be friendly to foreigners, to smile, to be clean,'' says Chom Hon Shin, a young man whose hands are creased with grease from his labor in a metal working shop. ``But our work is not clean. We should be natural and show what we do every day instead of putting on a show.''

Though the government gains credit for a well-organized Olympics, the good feelings are unlikely to translate into political gains. ``Everybody's overblowing the significance of the Olympics as far as Korean political impact,'' a Western diplomat in Seoul says. ``After the Games the same Korean political forces will be there.''

The diplomat says he is ``surprised by how little the politicians are occupied by the Olympics.'' In the National Assembly, where the three opposition parties hold a majority since last April's elections, they are preparing for vital investigations of the misdeeds of former President Chun Doo Hwan, the ex-general who was succeeded by his military academy classmate President Roh. In recent days, the President has signaled his readiness to sever ties with the unpopular Chun. The government clearly exerted pressure on Chun to avoid a public incident by canceling his appearance at the opening ceremony of the Games.

The greatest gains for the government, and the most excitement, have come from the visible improvement of relations between South Korea and the communist nations. Those ties have taken a leap forward, catalyzed by the decision of the communist bloc to participate in the Games and abandon their North Korean allies. This past week Hungary and South Korea announced establishment of formal government links, establishing diplomatic offices just short of full-scale embassies.

The South Korean media have been filled with often adulatory coverage of the teams from the Soviet Union, China, and other communist nations. For the once fiercely anticommunist South, the presence of these nations, and increasing trade and other links, are confirmation of its emergence as a force on the world scene.

As the Games go on, Korean pride may build into an Olympic fever. ``For a while,'' one Korean says almost wistfully, ``we are living in a different world.''

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