World

In South Korea, Olympics affect everything from food to housing to sex

Gangneung residents hope boom in hotels, restaurants and new apartments will become permanent

February 13, 2018

Hon Yun Hi set up her own shop last year to capitalize on the potential of a post-Olympic boom. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Hong Yun-Hee, 45, ushers an American into the chair and fires up her clippers. She says she's just about breaking even cutting the hair of the Olympic visitors flooding the city of Gangneung, site of the Olympic Park that will host hockey, curling and speed skating.

But the real payday, she hopes, will be after the Games. A new and permanent neighbourhood is springing up in the area around the recently constructed Olympic media village. That's why last March she left her job and built a salon of her own.

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"When I first came here, I was the only business in this new part of town, and I was worried," she says. "But there are more than three or four big apartment towns that were built here, so even after the Olympics there'll be people coming to live here. I see lots of development and opportunities."

A market in Gangneung features fresh stingray. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Gangneung, a city of about 200,000 people less than 200 km east of the capital Seoul, is mix of the old — bustling markets selling stingrays and live eels — and the very, very new. There is construction all over the city.

Even in many of the newly built apartments housing the Olympic media, the cabinets and kitchen sinks are covered in protective plastic sheeting, because they'll be rented or sold to new owners after the Olympics.

A new high-speed line between Seoul and Gangneung is bringing in a flood of new residents. (Olympic Broadcasting Services)

The reason for the relatively sudden boom is the high-speed train called the KTX. A new route built in time for the Olympics means Gangneung is now only a 90-minute ride from Seoul.

What was once a relative backwater will soon be a bedroom community, says Kang ki-Seong, who's managing the construction of a new three-story apartment and office complex.

There are dozens of active construction sites in Gangneung, as the city expects an influx of new residents following the Games. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I'm sure the population will go up in the city after the Olympics because of this train," he says.

But more demand means higher prices, says 18-year-old Kim Min Jong. She had hoped to find a place of her own when she graduates next year. Now she's afraid she's going to have to either keep living with her parents, or borrow money to make rent.

Kim Min Jong says because of new residents flooding Olympic cities like Gangneung, rents have shot higher. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"When you rent an apartment, you used to just pay one price, but now they charge you per person," she says.

And for many young couples, the Olympics have had a sudden and unexpected drawback: financially enforced celibacy.

For many young couples, the Olympics have had a sudden and unexpected drawback: financially enforced celibacy.

Jeong jin-wook walks hand-in-hand with his girlfriend toward the movie theatre. Because many young adults still live with their families, they can't "end" their dates at home.

"Korean sexuality is really hidden, they don't like to show it openly," Jeong says. "So there are lots of love hotels, it's typical in Korean culture."

So-called 'love hotels' are usually inexpensive, but with the Olympics in town, some prices have more than doubled. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

So-called "love hotels," often brightly decorated with hearts or tacky neon signs, are usually fairly inexpensive: around $30 for three hours. But with the Olympics in town, Jeong says, some prices have more than doubled.

"When couples want to meet and have a date, we now have to think twice about whether we're going to stay the night," he says.

Food prices, too, have gone through the roof, says Ham Ok-Sun, 66. She owns a tiny restaurant in downtown Gangneung right across from an Olympic fan park.

Ham Ok-Sun says area restaurants are gouging customers because of the Olympics. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

So many restaurants in the city have jacked up their prices, officials actually gave awards to restaurants that kept their prices down. She gestures proudly to a sticker pasted onto her front door.

"Some people here are happy because there will be a lot of foreigners who are coming," she says. "There's lots of new buildings but the Olympics don't affect me at all."

She's been selling her chive pancakes for $3 apiece in this tiny, six-seat restaurant long before the Games came to Gangneung. And, she says, her pancakes will still be here long after the Olympic torch is out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kim Brunhuber
Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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