600 Years vs. 17 days: Pyeongchang Olympic Games’ Environmental Cost

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Before the end of the month, the construction of a downhill ski slope in a remote part of South Korea’s countryside is set to begin, demolishing a centuries-old forest. With little time left to act, environmentalists are urgently searching for ways to halt the project and protect the land.

The steep slopes of Mt. Gariwangsan in eastern Korea’s mountainous Gangwon-do Province are home to one of the country’s oldest and most important woodland areas, with high concentrations of yew, aspen, fir and other alpine trees. By 2018, however, the mountainside will be marked by an enormous downhill ski slope as part of facilities being prepared for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The impending construction work has provoked a strong backlash from Korean environmentalists, who argue that the ecological value of the area is too great to justify destroying it for a two-week event. Currently all that stands between the bulldozers and the ancient ecosystem is a final bureaucratic hurdle: the official “restoration plan” for the affected area must receive approval from the Ministry of Environment.

“Construction looks set to start before the end of August,” says Kim Kyung-jun, director of the Wonju branch of Korea Federation of Environmental Movements. “The forest was an officially designated protected area, but a special law was passed to remove its protected status ahead of the Winter Olympics.”

The planned development is an alpine skiing venue that will host only two events at the coming winter games: downhill and super-G. Its construction has been deemed necessary because of the need for a minimum vertical drop of 800m as stipulated by the Fédération Internationale de Ski’s International Ski Competition Rules (ICR) for the men’s downhill event. A vertical drop of this magnitude was not available at any of the other planned venues.

After scouring the ICR, environmentalists at first pinned their hopes on the possibility of a “two-run race,” consisting of a downhill event in two halves, each of 350-450m, with both times combined to determine event winners. This option is available, the rules specify, “[I]f the topography of a country does not permit a Downhill with the required vertical drop as stated in the ICR.” After contacting the FIS, however, Good Friends of Nature Korea (GFNK) was told that the two-run option did not apply to the Winter Olympics.

“We’ve made other suggestions such as altering existing slopes with vertical drops of almost 700m, using methods such as the addition of a temporary steel structure at the top to add the extra length,” says Lee Byung-chun, an ecologist and chairman of GFNK. “It would be expensive, but nothing compared to the projected cost of building the new slope and restoring it afterwards.”

Costs aside, restoration plans are proving to be one of the most contentious issues of the project. “The government has said it will move the most important trees for the event, then bring them back afterwards and restore the area,” says Lee. “They use an example from America, where a mountain forest was restored after a wildfire. But there’s no comparison: here, they’ll be scraping away the topsoil and leaving bare rock. It’ll be dead land, taking centuries to recover. The government has effectively admitted this to us. We said, ‘How can you justify centuries of damage for a single two-week event?’”

Environmentalists are now depending on a civic audit request which, if successful, will provide the basis on which to apply for a legal injunction to halt construction work. Judging by previous cases of lawsuits launched by Korean citizens, especially in response to the much criticized Four Major Rivers Project, to protect the environment from big-budget government schemes, it is hard to think they will prevail.

When contacted, the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games declined to comment directly on the issue, pointing instead to the existence of a press release on its website. The brief press release repeats the FIS’s assertion that the two-run race option does not apply to winter Olympic games, concluding that the committee fully understands the environmental concerns that have been raised and is “working in consultation with the Ministry of Environment, Korea Forest Service and environmental experts to ensure the creation of an environmentally friendly venue.”

The press office of the International Olympic Committee failed to respond to an email enquiry regarding the issue that was sent on 14 August.

Despite the severe damage inflicted on the local environment by this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, domestic and international scrutiny of preparation for the Pyeongchang games seems lax so far. As with the Four Major Rivers Project, widespread awareness of the damage may come only – if it all – once it is too late.

Cover Image: Pyeongchang 2018

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Ben Jackson is Korea Exposé's environment editor. He studied languages at undergraduate level and has an MA in Korean Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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