After their town was relocated, they found an uneasy truce with the Pyeongchang Games
By CHICO HARLAN | The Washington Post | Published: February 9, 2018
SUKAM, South Korea -- One by one Friday, in new living room after new living room, the television sets flicked on in this village of 12 homes, just in time to watch the opening ceremony for an Olympics that had changed everything here. "Live," it said in the upper right corner of Nam Jae-hwan’s television screen, and he sat down with his wife on a linoleum floor.
"Wow," Nam, 54, was saying soon, as colored flares shot off around a stadium 15 miles away.
"So bright," his wife said.
After years of planning, the Winter Olympics had arrived not only in South Korea, but in its sleepiest, most rural corridor -- an area that, until recently, Nam took pride in calling the "deep countryside." The idea behind the games was that they might modernize one of the nation’s poorest provinces, and now Nam’s village stood as one version -- maybe the most extreme version -- of that change.
More than six years earlier, when South Korea was awarded the Winter Olympics, Sukam was just a cluster of 30 homes - 100 people - along an unpaved road that carved through the base of sheer mountainsides. It was beautiful. It was isolated. It was about as off-the-grid as South Korea could get. Sukam had a convenience mart that sold snacks and cigarettes, a village hall where people played card games and an elementary school that had been shuttered for several years. People farmed chili peppers and potatoes.
And then, just as South Korea was drawing up plans for the Games - saying that Gangwon Province would get a bullet train line, IT hubs, new investment zones and a Legoland - several provincial officials arrived in Sukam one afternoon. Almost everybody from the town showed up at the village hall, according to accounts from a half-dozen residents, and the officials said that the mountains around their town had been chosen as the site for alpine skiing during the Winter Olympics. A ski slope would be carved out through the mountains. The developers needed space. Their homes would be bulldozed. The town would be relocated.
Some residents figured the move was smart; their houses were old, and now they would be new - paid for with the help of government compensation. Some decided to move out of Sukam entirely. Others were upset. For at least a few days, some residents used their cars to block an entrance to the ski construction site. The construction company called the police. The police told the residents to leave. The residents did as they were told. The protest ended, and soon, residents were buying small plots of land together on a hillside - New Sukam, less than a quarter-mile away from Old Sukam - having made some uneasy truce with whatever the Olympics promised to bring.
"Gangwon has been isolated from development," said Um Ki-bum, 34. "We had no other way. We had to accept."
"We liked the idea of South Korea hosting the Olympics," Nam said. "So we went along with it."
Now, as the Olympics kick off, there are 51 bullet trains running daily through Gangwon Province, new highways and new condos - more than $13 billion poured into a region once known mostly for buckwheat and farming. From the hillside of New Sukam, one can look down into Old Sukam. What’s there? Terraced parking lots, a helicopter pad, a faux Swiss chalet and a hotel where the dinner buffet starts at $60.
"This area used to feel so country," said Nam, a construction worker, who would hike and forage for herbs around his home. "Now it feels almost like a city."
As the sun set Friday night, Nam could see the klieg lights shining on the alpine slope, giving the sky a white glow. He went into his house and saw his mother-in-law, who looked at the TV and asked if a soap opera was playing.
"No," Nam said, "it’s all about the Olympics now."
Then he sat down with his wife and watched the Opening Ceremonies, where there were fireworks, and a puppet white tiger, and dancers, and heads-of-state, and of course athletes, some of whom over the next two weeks would arrive in Sukam, going down a new mountain slope in an area no longer off-the-grid.
"Maybe it was better before," Nam said. "It was more like nature. But, it’s irreversible."