[Column] Festivals should be celebrations – economic motives ruined Korea’s jamboree

Posted on : 2023-08-11 17:12 KST Modified on : 2023-08-11 17:12 KST
Festivals are meant to be mini utopias, not means to an economic end
The World Scout Jamboree campsite in Saemangeum, North Jeolla Province, is all but empty as of Aug. 9, following the exodus of scouts to other parts of the country on account of an incoming typhoon. (Yonhap)
The World Scout Jamboree campsite in Saemangeum, North Jeolla Province, is all but empty as of Aug. 9, following the exodus of scouts to other parts of the country on account of an incoming typhoon. (Yonhap)
By Jun Bum-sun, lead singer of the Yangbans

There’s no sugarcoating it: This year’s World Scout Jamboree was an absolute disaster.

All 43,000 participants left the jamboree campsite in Saemangeum and are now scattered across the country in accommodations in eight cities and provinces.

Kim Hyun-sook, the minister of gender equality and family who chaired the joint organizing committee for the scout gathering, insisted that the jamboree was not over, but rather that its scope had expanded.

Her claim was that although the “Saemangeum” jamboree had wrapped up, the “Korea” jamboree would go on.

This claim insults the spirit of the jamboree. A jamboree is essentially a youth camping festival. The word was coined in the US during the 19th century to describe a spirited gathering, packed with enthusiasm.

Being split up to stay in various hotels, dormitories, or training centers has nothing to do with camping or festivities. This is no longer a jamboree, but a group tourist package.

How did this happen? The British Scout Association was the first to make the decision to pull out of the jamboree, citing four reasons: inadequate sanitary facilities, bad food, heat wave, and shoddy medical resources.

The South Korean government is blaming the typhoon for the mess, but the event hadn’t been adequately organized to begin with.

The lack of preparation was putting the health and safety of thousands of young people at risk. Toilets and showers were horribly dirty, and trash was littered everywhere because there were no bins to be found.

Food was inadequate and not fully accommodating of vegan, halal, and other dietary restrictions. There was no preparation for the heat wave and no medical support. The British delegation stated that they were “disappointed.”

The UK, the original home of the Scouts, sent the largest number of participants, more than 4,500. Most had been working part-time jobs and fundraising for years to pay the fee to participate, which ran around 3,500 pounds, or US$4,400.

The sudden withdrawal cost them around 1 million pounds from their reserves for hotels alone, which will cause problems in the program for the next three to five years, at least.

About 1,500 American scouts were also moved to Camp Humphreys, a US military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.

Parents are far from happy.

There has also been controversy over the lack of response to alleged sex crimes on the camping site, which may result in lawsuits against the organizers, the South Korean government.

Most importantly, the World Scout Jamboree is only open to 14-to-17-year-olds and only happens every four years, so scouts likely only have one opportunity to participate. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

How can anyone compensate for the shattered hopes and aspirations of these young people?

I happen to have participated in a jamboree when I was a middle school student, specifically the 24th Asia-Pacific Jamboree held in 2004 in Goseong County, Gangwon Province. The training center for the Goseong jamboree was a beautiful spot overlooking the East Sea with Mount Seorak as its backdrop. Valleys, lakes, and the ocean are close by, and it also has lush forests, making it a great place to withstand the heat.

Twenty years later, I still have clear memories of the jamboree. We pitched tents, socialized with friends from all over the world, and exchanged badges. The outdoor activities helped me develop a sense of adventure and team spirit.

If I’m completely honest, it’s a little unnerving to look back on that experience now, since it seems like we were playing soldiers, but at the time, it was so much fun. I’ll never forget the halcyon days I spent there.

That’s what festivals are for: to highlight the beautiful experiences in life. Events such as birthdays, weddings, reunions, festivals, and jamborees — these are the moments that spark joy in us, moments that we look back on fondly before we die.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we live to celebrate. Isn’t that what life is all about, to honor and celebrate being alive?

Festivals are utopias that we create in the limited time we have and scarce locations we are able to occupy. They’re about creating an environment where everyone is healthy, safe, and happy, even if only for a little while. The best country is a country where every day is a festival.

Building a happy country is no different from organizing a successful festival.

South Korea is used to hosting jamborees, World Cups, Olympics, and expositions, but this time, we completely dropped the ball.

The basics of organizing a festival are to pick the right time and place. In the age of climate crisis, holding a massive camping festival for 12 days in August in South Korea is risky, and the decision to hold it on reclaimed land with no natural shade could only have been made by those who have no interest in festival culture or are ignorant of it.

Despite these concerns, Saemangeum went ahead with the event simply because the Jeonbuk Institute estimated the economic impact to be 6 trillion won (US$4.5 billion), since hosting the jamboree would mean that infrastructure such as Saemangeum International Airport, new highways, and ports would be developed easily.

Of course, such plans now look like mere mirages. The root cause of the jamboree’s failure is the push for development in Saemangeum, land that created plains and lakes of death by embanking tidal flats that used to harbor so much life.

Now, they say that mobilizing K-pop idols and hosting a K-pop concert will restore Korea’s national dignity.

I want to ask, why do we have festivals? For money? For the country? As I wrote in my column “Festivals are also rallies,” right after the Itaewon tragedy, festivals are not a means to an end. They are ends in and of themselves. In fact, money and countries are nothing more than means for festivals.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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