August 20, 2019
August 20, 2019
North Korea’s ill-fated campaign to stop the ’88 Seoul Olympics
North Korea’s ill-fated campaign to stop the ’88 Seoul Olympics
From boycotts to demands for joint hosting rights, Pyongyang was desperate to halt the games
January 25th, 2018

This is part one of a series on North Korea’s efforts to stop the ’88 Seoul Olympics. You can read part two here.

There’s only a month to go before the start of the Pyeongchang Olympics, so now seems as good a time as any to recap the summer of ’88, the last time South Korea hosted an Olympics. Actually, in many ways, events that led up to the summer Olympics of 1988 were far more dramatic and worrying than what we have seen in the last year or two, at least from point of view of Seoul.  

In this two-part series, we’ll look back on the lead up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, this first part will cover the threat of a boycott, and how North Korea attempted to lobby the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 


Although unusual now, national boycotts were not uncommon during the Cold War: there had been a major boycott in 1976 (Montreal) due to Apartheid South Africa. The Moscow Olympics of 1980 was preceded by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S. response was to boycott, with many of their African and Asian allies and partners following suit.

The 1980 boycott brought together nations as far-flung as Kenya, West Germany, China, and also, South Korea. It ensured that Carl Lewis, who was just beginning his career, had to wait until 1984 to have his first Olympic appearance.

The boycott, the largest in Olympic history, meant that the Eastern bloc countries won far more medals, but the Soviets were decidedly unamused. They responded by organizing their own boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. This time, China turned up, and only a few African and Asian states – including North Korea – joined the boycott, but the medal-winning machines of Eastern Europe all stayed away, aside from Romania.

The North Koreans hoped that a similar kind of boycott could be organized for the Olympics in Seoul in 1988

Amusingly, Romania, as a result, participated in both games, being the awkward socialist state that borrowed money from Western banks and then the IMF in 1981. China’s position was even more interesting, with poor relations with the Soviets leading the Chinese Communist Party to boycott Moscow but happily send their team stateside four years later.

At any rate, given the large number of states who boycotted Moscow, and the boycott of some of the most successful athletics, the North Koreans hoped that a similar kind of boycott could be organized for the Olympics in Seoul in 1988.

South Korea will host the Olympics for the second time in its history next month | Photo: Blue House

The North had been good enough to sit out LA, so they hoped that if they couldn’t get co-hosting rights, then at least they could rely on their fraternal socialist allies to sit out proceedings in Seoul. However, only the Marxist-Leninist regime in Ethiopia, along with Cuba, Albania, and Seychelles were persuaded to actually boycott.

Until the 1970s, North Korea was widely thought to be ahead of the South in the economic competition between the two Koreas. However, by the 1980s, even the North Korean leadership was admitting privately that they were behind the South economically.

Their propaganda about the South still portrayed it as being a barbarous, deprived and depraved colony of the U.S. imperialists, but in private, they hinted that they were losing.

They had to keep up appearances, however, and they were incensed by the idea that Seoul would be accorded the recognition as a major sporting nation that hosting the summer Olympics conferred.

The North initially hoped to deny the South this prestigious status by demanding that the Olympics be moved to another city: they threatened to not participate, and believed that they would be able to bring their socialist “allies” with them. 

By the 1980s, even the North Korean leadership was admitting privately that they were behind the South economically.


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1988 Summer Olympic Games to Seoul in 1981. But this was just the beginning of the saga. On paper at least, the North had a number of allies that it could call upon to lobby the IOC and potentially threaten to sit out the games, but that is not how things were to pan out.

The 1984 LA Games were to be a high water mark in socialist state-led boycotts, and a North Korean state that continually shifted tactics and negotiating positions, while also engaging in assassinations and even terrorist attacks (with minimal plausible deniability) found little sympathy in a fast-changing world.

The IOC has since released a large tranche of documents, including correspondence and records of meetings with officials from governments that proved crucial to making the games the success it was.

Seoul was awarded the right to host the 1988 Summer Olympics at Baden-Baden in 1981. The North was angered by this for a number of reasons, the idea of Seoul being able to showcase itself to the world as a prosperous and exciting place, rather than the rotten and diseased society of North Korean agitprop.

They used a number of tactics to deal with the perceived threat the games posed to their legitimacy. Thanks to the hard work of the Wilson Center’s researchers and archivists, we know a good deal about what happened behind the scenes. The North’s tactics included demanding the games be moved, which the IOC and South Korea were in no mind to countenance.

Much of the socialist world had boycotted the 1984 LA Olympics | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

They proposed fielding a joint team in 1984 and such proposals were given the veneer of multilateral support when the Chinese National Olympic Committee (NOC) also sent a letter of support for such a proposal in 1985.

In private, with their socialist “brothers,” representatives of the North indicated that they hoped the Socialist camp would do what they had done in 1984, and boycott – this time with the addition of China.  

The IOC attempted to broker a solution that would not involve reneging on the contract it had made with Seoul. The North indicated that they wanted joint hosting rights, in meetings held in 1985, while in early 1986, sought to haggle over the number of events they would have in Pyongyang.

The haggling continued into 1987, but discussions between Seoul and the IOC indicate that the South thought the North was acting in bad faith. Given what happened soon after in the run-up to the Asian Games, on this point at least, then-President Chun Doo-hwan may well have been right.

Representatives of the North indicated that they hoped the Socialist camp would do what they had done in 1984

The IOC also knew in mid-1986 that the North had failed to persuade its European “allies” and the Soviets of the need for a boycott. And Gorbachev made it clear in late 1986 that the Soviets would be in Seoul.

China also participated in the dress rehearsal for the Summer Olympics, the 1986 Asian Games held in Seoul. Thus, already by mid-1986, the writing was on the wall.

But the North had not given up on its hope of ruining the Seoul Olympics. Pyongyang responded not just with hard, fruitless bargaining tactics, but also resorted to using terror – and this is what we shall turn to in the second part of this series.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: U.S. Air Force

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