Amazing Aftermath of Seoul 1988 Olympics

Lecturer: Kathryn Weathersby, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor of History, Korea University

The 1988 Summer Olympics were the Republic of Korea’s international debut as a modern, prosperous country. The games’ Opening Ceremonies drew television’s largest audience to date -- over a billion people. The Olympics also proved to be a turning point in South Korean foreign relations and in the entire configuration of international relations in Northeast Asia. Just days before the games began, Seoul announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of Hungary, formerly a staunch ally of North Korea. The ROK then turned to Moscow, which, strapped for cash, agreed to recognize Seoul in exchange for significant loans and credits. South Korea’s price for such assistance was that the Soviet Union cease its military support to North Korea. When Pyongyang responded to Moscow’s betrayal by threatening to recognize the independence of rebellious Soviet republics, the Soviet Union cut off economic aid as well, demanding that the DPRK pay world market prices for its oil. The post-Soviet Russian Republic continued Gorbachev’s realignment toward the two Koreas, China followed suit, and the North Korean economy imploded.

As we face another possible realignment following this year’s PyeongChang Olympics, Professor Weathersby will provide some context by recounting the amazing story of what happened in the aftermath of the 1988 Olympics. She will begin with the ROK pursuit of a “north policy” concurrent with its Olympic bid, explaining the origins and logic of this approach. She will then examine Seoul’s successful negotiations to establish diplomatic relations with Moscow and the lasting impact of that historic shift.

Kathryn Weathersby is a historian of the international history of modern East Asia. She has focused her research on Soviet involvement in the Korean peninsula before and during the Korean War, and on the history of North Korea. She founded and directed the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC and taught courses on North Korea at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. Currently at Korea University, she is teaching a course titled “The International History of Divided Korea.”

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