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Korea Blog: Letter from Gangneung, the Real Capital of the 2018 Winter Olympics

A whole new line on the KTX, South Korea’s high-speed train system, opened just last December. It connects Seoul to Gangneung, a modest coastal city on the opposite side of the county, reducing a trip that formerly took more than six hours to what now takes less than two — an hour and 55 or so minutes, to be more precise, and one can only imagine the pressure on the engineering team to get the trip time down to the more marketable side of two hours. Still, it couldn’t have been as intense as the pressure to get the line up and running before the Winter Olympics, many of whose events take place in the place where it terminates, and without the presence of which it probably wouldn’t have been built at all.

The name Gangneung might sound unfamiliar even to Olympics fans. Didn’t the games go to a city called Pyeongchang? Many know that name, or some variation of it, because of the official pains taken to differentiate it from Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. (Hence some branding that renders it PyeongChang or Pyeong Chang.) And indeed, Pyeongchang does have a stop on the new KTX line, but that tiny mountain town makes Gangneung, which itself has fewer than 215,000 people, look like an urban colossus. Though competition venues have gone up all over Pyeongchang County, it’s Gangneung, the biggest city in the area, that can in some sense lay a more convincing claim to Olympic-capital status.

Always game to ride a fast train, new or old — their existence, after all, being one of the most compelling reasons to leave America — I recently caught a KTX out of Seoul and rode it all the way to Gangneung. Getting to Seoul Station that day involved making my way past hundreds of oldsters, almost all of them waving the flag of the Republic of Korea. The ones that weren’t held the Stars and Stripes instead, seemingly an even more meaningful symbol to Koreans of a certain age. Either way, they’d all come to demand the same thing: a boycott of the Olympics due to what they consider the illegitimate impeachment and replacement of Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman under whose 18-year rule they’d seen the country grow prosperous enough to first host the Olympics under his successor in 1988.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.