World Cup 2002: Korea Mulls World Cup Legacy

Among South Koreans' dreams for 2002 are national unity, an improved relationship with co-host Japan, and a place in the second round.

There is a joke, Chung Mong Joon explains, that sums up his nation's relationship with its most bitter rival:

Every time South Korea elects a new government, Japan is asked to apologize for atrocities committed during its 35-year occupation, through the end of World War II, of the Korean peninsula. Every time, Japan says it's sorry.

"Finally," says Chung - architect of South Korea's successful World Cup bid, co-chairman of its organizing committee, president of its soccer federation and, should destiny hold sway, future president of the country - "Japan is asked to give apology again, and [the Japanese premier] says, 'We give apology many times; why do you keep asking?'"

Chung pauses, his smile broadening. "'Because,'" he says, "'you keep giving apology.'"

It was with ruthless irony that South Korea's chance to stage the World Cup would be shared with Japan. Their mingling histories, normally as colonizer and colony, have fueled rancor over centuries and left them, in one Korean World Cup official's words, "close but distant neighbors."

"We realized" quickly, says Jan Roelfs, press officer for Guus Hiddink, the South Korean national team's Dutch coach, "there's a lot of hatred between the countries."

The animosity is largely one-sided. Japan first invaded Korea in 1592; its brutal rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945 - with hundreds of thousands killed or forced into military service, slave-labor and prostitution - is the telling influence on modern South Korea.

So when officials of KOWOC, the Korean organizing committee for next year's World Cup, speak of the championships as "an opportunity" for Korea to foster a partnership with its historic foe, they are expressing a dream. A grand, elusive dream.

It is but one of many.

"We are hoping the World Cup can bring South Korea together," Chung says. "We hope the World Cup can bring North and South Korea together. We hope the World Cup can bring the Japanese and Korea together."

They hope Hiddink will guide the Koreans, who have zero wins in five World Cup finals, to the second phase. ("Round of 16, round of eight," Chung replies when asked his dream.)

They hope to nurse Korea's relationship with the soccer-mad Chinese, qualifiers for the first time.

They hope to boost their sport's status in a country that favors baseball while leading Asian soccer among the world's best.

They hope to showcase and expand Korean technology and industry - from which they expect to profit greatly - and promote Korean culture.

They hope to bring - no joke this time - peace and harmony to the world.

Most of all, they want Japan to say it's sorry.

'SIMPLY AN OPPORTUNITY.' "All the [older] Koreans have memories of the Colonial period," Chung says, speaking to why he authored What I Want to Tell the Japanese, a book carved from conversations with a Japanese newspaper. "Old people understand Japan through their personal experience during Colonial rule. The younger generation, people like myself, we don't really understand Japan at all. ... Before we established diplomatic relations with China [in 1992] and the former Soviet Union [in 1990], Korea was kind of an island. The only country we had exchanges with was Japan.

"You can imagine the bitter feeling Koreans cherished in their hearts. [There's an] emotional barrier between Korea and Japan."

The World Cup, he believes, can bridge the gorge separating the countries. It is, he says, "the best opportunity to bring Japanese and Korean together."

The Korean and Japanese organizing committees have forged a spirit of cooperation, the fight over the order in "Korea/Japan" notwithstanding.

"It takes time, at times painstaking, to consult with each other on all trivial things," reports Moon Dong Hoo, KOWOC's general secretary. "However, I think it is worthwhile to have consultations even if it takes more time. It gives you more understanding about [Japan's] viewpoint, and vice-versa."

"It is simply an opportunity," Chung cautions. "Whether the opportunity can be realized or not depends on Korea's effort, Japan's effort."

Japan enraged Korea with its decision this fall to continue using history textbooks cleansed of Japanese atrocities during the Korean occupation and World War II. Its failure to deal satisfactorily (in Korean estimation) with the "comfort women" issue - Korean women forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II - wounds deeply. Progress isn't being made.

"It is a rather fragile opportunity," Chung acknowledges. "I'm afraid the opportunity is not being utilized to its full extent. ... If you cannot make the most of the opportunity, it can be a pity."

The media and public, neither particularly soccer-savvy, has put a huge premium on outperforming Japan. "Hiddink! Make Our Dream Come True!" screams a banner among the Red Devils, South Korea's official fan club, at friendlies to open World Cup stadiums in Jeonju and Seoul. That dream, officially, is the second round. The real dream is anywhere ahead of Japan.

When Hiddink's squad lost, 5-0, to France during the Confederations Cup, "everybody said it's too bad it wasn't 4-0," notes Roelfs. "Then we would have done better" than Japan, which had earlier been beaten, 5-0, by the French.

The Korean media, Hiddink says, "are always asking, 'Japan did like this, we did like this ...' - I don't think like that. ... But they have a special animosity against Japan."

"The fact that we're in competition against Japan [in bidding for, then organizing the World Cup] became a nationalistic issue," Chung says. "I sometimes felt people did not know what [the World Cup] is about, just that it is a competition against Japan, and we must win."

MR. PRESIDENT. Chung, 50, the sixth son of powerful Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Yang, is a three-term member of South Korea's National Assembly and a FIFA vice president. His performance leading KOWOC along a difficult path could pay off in either venue.

It's no secret FIFA President Sepp Blatter has made enemies during his tenure, and Chung's name appears high on lists of suspected successors.

Chung, furious with Blatter when FIFA released confidential letters concerning crackdowns on dogmeat consumption during the World Cup, doesn't flinch when asked about an Asian holding the FIFA presidency.

"That's a good idea," he says. "It could be me, it could be [Japan FA president and JAWOC chairman Shunichiro] Okano, it could be one of the sheiks from the Middle East. Why not?"

A successful World Cup, one that would unify a splintered citizenry, could position him well for South Korea's December 2002 presidential election.

"Seneca said: 'Public office and death are the same thing,' " Chung says of the possibility. " 'If it comes to you, it is foolish to try to escape from it. And it is more foolish to pursue it.' I agree."

Chung has, by all accounts, done a remarkable job driving the Korean World Cup effort. His greatest achievement: prodding construction of 10 stadiums, for $2 billion, during the Asian financial crisis of the late '90s.

Chung convinced South Korean President Kim Dae Jung that new facilities were imperative for the success of the World Cup, that they would provide the tournament's most concrete legacy.

'INVESTMENT FOR OUR FUTURE.' Chung knows well the difficulties in building relationships with Japan and North Korea. (His Ph.D. thesis at Johns Hopkins was on Japan; he calls himself a "student of Japan." He serves on the National Assembly's Reunificiation Committee.) He must realize the likelihood neither relationship will be restored because of the World Cup.

Repairing South Korea's fractured society - that might be something else.

"The [Korean] people are separate," he says. "The people really don't talk to each other." There are great divisions along economic, social, generational and regional lines.

That's where the stadiums come in. Chung calls them an "investment for our future," a rallying point for Koreans. They are magnificent modern arenas, all incorporating traditional Korean forms and concepts in their designs.

"It's a real football stadium," Hiddink said after beating Croatia, 2-0, in the Seoul stadium's opener. "This is one of the most beautiful stadiums I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot."

It wasn't hyperbole. The stadium, built on a former waste reclamation site, utilizes forms from traditional Korean low dining tables and octagonal serving trays; the roof is based on Korean kites and sailboats - the effect is stunning. The field's like carpet; each of 64,640 seats offered superb views.

A "peace park" - with golf course, natch - will be constructed next door. The stadium in Incheon, also modeled on sailboats, is slated to become a theme park. The facility in Gwangju will house a World Cup museum. K-League teams will play in some. There will be restaurants, cinemas, shops. "A good social space," Chung says.

He envisions something akin to what happened in Spain, whose emergence from the Franco era was prodded by the 1982 Cup, or in France, which used its '98 success to reassess what it was to be French.

"That's the kind of legacy [we want]," Chung declares. "We hope the World Cup can help Korean people reach to our own future. I think this is most important."

A strong showing by Hiddink's crew can only help.

"Round of 16, round of eight," Chung repeats, as if a mantra.

Everybody has a dream.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French in Seoul, Jeonu, and Paju City

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications