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Pyeongchang’s Winding Path From Obscurity to Olympics Fame

Even the town’s name was a problem. Originally spelled “Pyongchang” in English, it was often confused with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. So in 2000, the town added a letter, capitalized another and changed its name to “PyeongChang,” though most foreign news agencies declined to use the capital C.

Despite the rebranding, a Kenyan man registered to attend a United Nations meeting in Pyeongchang in 2014 made headlines after he flew to Pyongyang by mistake.

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Visitors leave messages of hope at the DMZ Museum in Gangwon Province, which lies on the border with North Korea. The province will host the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, another part of regional efforts to turn its proximity to the North into a tourist attraction. Credit Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency

In time, though, South Korea embraced Pyeongchang’s bid for the Games as its own. The nation’s leaders were eager to build global prestige and saw the Winter Games as a chance to become one of only a handful of countries that have hosted a “trifecta” of international sports events. (The World Cup took place in South Korea and Japan in 2002, and Seoul hosted the Summer Games in 1988.)

In a country where winter sports never quite caught on, only one other town with ski slopes, Maju, was interested in hosting the Olympics. Pyeongchang edged it out for national support, perhaps because it sits in a province that has been a major electoral battleground.

The government has poured $ 13 billion into the region, building a new bullet train and highway — and 63 tunnels and 78 bridges — to improve access to Pyeongchang from Seoul, as well as sporting facilities such as ice rinks and ski slopes.

While some residents worried about the impact on local forests, support for the Olympic bid has been almost universal in Pyeongchang: A poll taken at the time of the first bid showed nearly 94 percent support, and it has not wavered.

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A view from the Unification Observatory, a hilltop lookout in Gangwon Province where visitors can peer at North Korea less than a half-mile away. Credit Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency

Many believe the area’s future lies in bolstering tourism and are hopeful the Winter Games will help. The service sector already accounts for 70 percent of the local economy, in part because vacationers drawn to the province’s scenic coast. But inland Pyeongchang has not really benefited; it’s betting that the Olympics will change that.

In lobbying for its bid, South Korea used a potential handicap — Pyeongchang’s proximity to the North Korean border, in a region bristling with troops and weaponry — as a selling point. Holding the Games in Pyeongchang, officials argued, would promote peace between two nations still technically at war.

The North did agree to send 22 athletes to the Games, and the two countries agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team.

A third of South Korea’s 600,000 military personnel are based in Gangwon Province. Many who were posted here as conscripts — all men in South Korea are required to serve about two years in the military — say they never want to see it again, so rugged are its hills and cold its winters.

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A South Korean soldier at the Unification Observatory last month. A selling point for Pyeongchang’s bid for the Olympics was that it would promote peace. Credit Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency

Suspicion of North Korea is deeply etched here, as nowhere else in South Korea. The mountainous border is scarred with barbed wire, tank traps, land mines and guard posts. Hilltop loudspeakers blare K-pop songs daily toward the North, which counters by sending propaganda leaflets floating on balloons into the South.

Dreams of easing tensions and reunifying with the North one day are also more acutely felt here than anywhere else in South Korea. Many older people in the area came from the North as war refugees, settling near the border in hopes of returning quickly once the Koreas were reunified.

”Our dream is to one day take the train to go to North Korea and all the way across Siberia and to Berlin,” said Noh Yeon-su, curator of the DMZ Museum, referring to roads and rail lines that stop at the border, essentially making South Korea an island.

The province is also home to the so-called Peace Dam, a towering structure built on the Han River because of fears that another dam upstream in North Korea might release a killer flood, by accident or on purpose.

And it was in nearby Gangneung, where the ice hockey and speedskating events are scheduled to be held, that a North Korean submarine ran aground in 1996. Twenty-six crewmen and agents spilled out, setting off a huge manhunt in the area.

But Mr. Choi, the governor, shrugs off such concerns.

“Those of us who live here are not afraid of North Korea because the North, despite all its missile tests and bombast, doesn’t have an ability to fight a war,” he said. The economic output of his province, the South’s poorest, he noted, exceeds that generated by all of North Korea.

He added, “The happiest thing about the Olympics is that when foreigners see the Games taking place here, we can shake off our stigma as a dangerous place.”

Source: NYT > World

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