SEOUL — Scouts are known for their hardiness, but the tens of thousands of attendees at the 25th World Jamboree in South Korea are having their vigor challenged to the max by a combination of faltering facilities, swarming bugs, a climatic “heat trap” and searing temperatures currently plaguing the peninsula.
After more than 1,000 visiting teens visited on-site medical facilities on Thursday for conditions including bug bites, rashes and heat exhaustion, South Korean governmental bodies on Friday swung into crisis-management mode.
Those moves may be too late for some, as local media reports warn the event could put a dent in the country’s global reputation for competence and organization.
The biggest national contingent of Scouts at the event — some 4,000 teens from the U.K. — are leaving the Jamboree site and will be moved to hotels in the country, reports the BBC, citing the nation’s Scout association.
The U.K. Embassy in Seoul declined to speak to The Washington Times. But the Korea Times reported Friday that multiple embassies in Seoul are on “high alert,” scrambling to make sure Scouts from their countries are safe.
About 700 American Boy Scouts have traveled to South Korea for the Jamboree, and U.S. Embassy officials said they had been in touch with both the Boy Scouts of America and the U.S. military command in South Korea over the status of the U.S. contingent.
The news from the site, in Korea’s southwest, is a jolt for a nation renowned globally as a safe pair of hands when it comes to organizing international events — including a previous World Scout Jamboree in 1991.
Hailing from 158 nations, approximately 40,000 Scouts from countries around the world have gathered in Saemangeum, on South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast south of Seoul. Jamborees are held every four years, and the current edition runs from Aug. 1-12.
But alarming media reports and social media complaints from worried parents indicate the great adventure is mutating into a great trial.
Some TV reports showcase grinning Scouts saying they are making the best of the weather, which is topping 95 degrees Fahrenheit. But Saemangeum, a reclaimed site, is a largely featureless landscape lacking natural shade, pushing temperatures inside tents even higher.
Other footage shows Scouts hefting umbrellas as they line up in the sun for facilities, and flooding convenience stores to buy ice and ice cream.
Mobile showers have backed up, with mud covering the floors. Participants say the number of on-site toilets is insufficient, as are cleaning staff. Swarms of insects have descended, and though Korean mosquitoes are not malarial, gruesome images show legs covered in sores from bites.
In medical centers, staffers’ inability to speak English has generated further criticism.
Mobilizing from the top
In the face of harshly critical media reports, the South Korean government is mobilizing from the very top: President Yoon Suk Yeol has ordered the dispatch of air-conditioned buses and freezer vans, and demanded improvements in the food.
The army is on call. Some 40 military medical personnel are on-site, and engineers are reportedly setting up additional washing facilities and sun shades.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo convened an emergency Cabinet meeting that approved the release of $5.28 million in funds.
The Foreign Ministry announced the establishment of a task force to coordinate with embassies anxious about the well-being of their nationals in Saemangeum.
“Some of the participating governments have officially expressed concerns on the condition of the event, and some parents of international participants are complaining through social network services,” Yun Jae-ok, floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, said at a National Assembly meeting, the Korea Times reported.
Mr. Yun fretted that South Korea’s national image — as a well-governed economic and cultural powerhouse — could be damaged by the episode.
“The atmosphere towards Korea is becoming increasingly positive worldwide, and this Jamboree should not be an experience they want to forget,” he said.
The fallout is extraordinary given that Seoul has made the successful hosting of top-level international events a cornerstone of Brand Korea.
South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and the 2018 Winter Olympics, all praised for their spare-no-expenses, superlative organization. Likewise, the country hosted the 1991 Scout Jamboree successfully.
The 1991 event, however, was held in the lush, forested hills of a national park in the country’s northeast. The 2023 event is being held on a flat, reclaimed estuary on the west coast, behind the world’s biggest sea wall.
“Seamanguem is not known for its visual beauty and seems a very odd choice at this time of year, at peak heat,” said Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans.” “It seems a serious misjudgment, and I expect the decision was made by someone who has never slept in a tent.”
Saemangeum is in Korea’s southwestern Jeolla Province, customarily considered a hard-luck area.
The World Organization of the Scouting Movement, the global umbrella organization, said in a statement Friday it had appealed to South Korean organizers “to consider alternative options to wind down the event earlier than scheduled, and support participants until they depart for their home countries. The host decided to proceed with the delivery of the event with assurances that they will do their utmost to tackle the issues caused by the heat wave by adding significant additional resources.”
“We continue to call on the host and the Korean government to follow through on their commitments to mobilize additional financial and human resources, and to make the health and safety of participants their highest priority,” the statement said.