6 June 2024

South Korea was evacuating tens of thousands of scouts on Tuesday from a problem-plagued jamboree campsite ahead of a typhoon, days after a heatwave caused mass illnesses.

Korean media have called it a “national disgrace” and parents have complained of poor conditions at the site, with American and British scouts leaving early.

AFP takes a look at what we know:

What happened?

South Korea is hosting the quadrennial World Jamboree in North Jeolla province, having allocated more than 100 billion won ($76 million) for the event.

The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper has reported that some of the funds were used by civil servants for “business trips” that had little to do with hosting 43,000 scouts.

Trips to England and France in 2019 involved touring Buckingham Palace and seeing a musical, plus a wine-tasting in Montmartre.

The campsite could have had the highest-quality infrastructure if the jamboree’s “massive budget had been executed properly”, the ruling People Power Party’s leader Kim Gi-hyeon posted on Facebook.

“At this point, it seems like a massive deception against the public and might even reach the level of embezzling public funds,” Kim said, vowing a full investigation.

Scouts carry a box past tents during preparations to leave the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, North Jeolla province on August 8.//AFP

Was it so bad?

Organisers can’t be directly blamed for a heatwave or the looming typhoon, but criticism has focused on a preventable problem: unsanitary toilets.

Images showing filthy, rudimentary and overflowing toilets have circulated widely on social media.

“This looks like a toilet from 20 years ago and it will be remembered as an image of South Korea,” lamented one YouTube commentator.

The head of the British contingent, the largest scout group with more than 4,000 members, said poor sanitation was a major factor in the decision to leave early.

The government acknowledged the issues and promised hundreds more cleaning staff, but critics said it was too little too late.

Scouts prepare to leave the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, North Jeolla province on August 8.//AFP

A ‘cursed’ campsite?

The jamboree was held at Saemangeum, a reclaimed tidal flat only completed in 2006, and was already controversial because it drained what scientists said was a crucial wetland for migratory birds.

The reclamation destroyed the major feeding area for hundreds of thousands of birds, experts said, and the number of birds visiting the estuary each year fell precipitously between 2001 and 2014.

Saemangeum is now a treeless mud beach with little shelter from the summer heat and critics warned about the risks.

“What people don’t understand about Saemangeum … is that it is cursed,” said Sohoon Yi, a sociology professor at Kyungpook National University.

“It is cursed with deaths of countless migratory birds and dead water… It was time we called Saemangeum for what it is: an ecological disaster brought on by the mistaken perception of human relationship to the nature.”

Be prepared?

Lawmaker Lee Won-taeg flagged major failures in preparation to parliament almost a year before the jamboree, citing a lack of contingency plans for extreme weather and insect control.

Seoul’s gender minister Kim Hyun-sook, one of the key organisers, responded that planning was proceeding “without a hitch”.

Lee warned Kim during a parliamentary session: “Wait and see. History will eventually hold you, minister, responsible for this.”

Seoul insisted the jamboree would go ahead, even after the global scouting body called for it to be cut short and parents said it had “turned into a nightmare”. It urged participants to see it as a “platform for overcoming challenges”, until Typhoon Khanun forced the evacuation.

Scouts stand in line near a coach during preparations to leave the World Scout Jamboree in Buan.//AFP

What happens now?

South Korea has said the early departure from the campsite does not mean the end of the event, saying the jamboree was “merely relocating due to a natural disaster” and would continue until Saturday’s official close.

The scouts will be accommodated in eight cities and provinces from Tuesday. One lawmaker has even called for K-pop megastars BTS to reunite and perform for the jamboree.

Critics say these new arrangements defeat the point of the event.

“It is disappointing that it turned into a ‘tourism jamboree’ with everyone taking part in different places, rather than an event to gather in one place to form new friendships,” the JoongAng Ilbo said.

By Agence France Presse