The Miracle on the Han River and the 1988 Summer Olympics

One of the most significant events in Korea’s history is the 1988 Summer Olympics. For much of the 1900s, Korea had faced significant hardship due to devastating conflicts such as colonization by Japan, World War II, and the Korean War — the latter ending in the country splitting into its northern and southern counterparts. However, in the roughly thirty years following the end of the Korean War, South Korea experienced a meteoric economic rise; eventually culminating in Korea being recognized internationally during the 1988 Summer Olympics.

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The first fifty or so years of the twentieth century were tumultuous for South Korea. Though the country experienced some economic growth as a colony of the Japanese Empire, the end of World War II left Korea with little resources and manpower, as much of the able-bodied men were conscripted into the military. As a result, South Korea became one of the poorest countries in the world. Korean property was also further destroyed by twenty-five percent during the Korean War, leaving much of the population impoverished with hunger becoming a norm for many.

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Over time, South Korea transitioned from a mostly agricultural society to an industrial economy. Under President Park Chung-hee’s first Five-Year Plan, South Korea began developing basic industries such as transportation, export, and energy. Although the country did not immediately become self-reliant, it put into motion a period of growth and modernization that would later lead to long-term economic success and policy reform. 

South Korea also used part of the foreign aid they received to further build the national economy through the Saemaeul Undong (새마을운동, or “New Community Movement”). This movement focused on developing rural areas and rectifying the disparity of living standards between the nation's urban centers and the poorer countryside villages. The subsequent improvement of living standards nationwide allowed the government to further support the electronics and steel industries. As a result, the country flourished and cemented its place as the eleventh largest economy in the world by 1995, in contrast to the bleak economic landscape at the end of the war in 1945.

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The idea of placing a bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics was initially brought up during the administration of President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s. His successor, Chun Doo-hwan, further developed the idea of South Korea’s candidacy, eventually submitting the bid in 1981 with the hope that Korea’s economic miracle (now known as 한강의 기적, or “the Miracle on Han River”) would be recognized by the international community. South Korea was eventually awarded the bid on September 30, 1981, becoming the second Asian host nation and the first mainland Asian nation to host the event.KORE LIMITED korea korean 1988 seoul olympics 1936 olympics summer aohn kee cheong marathon gold medal

The 1988 Summer Olympics featured 8,454 different athletes from 159 different countries, making it the largest participation in Olympic history and displaying the pinnacle of the thirty years of hard work and perseverance by Koreans. This was also an especially important event for Korean-Americans, who had the opportunity to witness the worldwide event four years earlier in Los Angeles and then see the Olympics brought to their homeland in Seoul. As such, the two cultures were brought together in an event meant to unify the world’s nations. Our LA to Seoul design honors the continued importance of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul to Koreans and Korean-Americans over thirty years later.

Countries around the world also recognized the hard work and dedication of the Korean people, with the New York Times calling the event “a national festival bringing new hope and pride into the hearts of Koreans who are working hard to bring their country into the ranks of industrialized nations.”

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Today, the 1988 Seoul Olympics represents the beginning of a renaissance of economic accomplishment for Korean people after decades of hardship. For Koreans, this not only served as proof of what they had been able to accomplish as a collective, but that they could persevere through the most difficult of periods and reach a point of prosperity unlike anything the world had ever seen before.

Check out our LA to Seoul V2 design, available in both a crewneck (black, slate) and a quarter-zip (black, heather grey). For more designs commemorating the 1988 Summer Olympics, check out our 1988 Bucket Hat (white, black).

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