How South Korea’s 2023 World Scout Jamboree Spiraled Into ‘Fyre Festival’ for Kids

The World Scout Jamboree this month in South Korea was to have been a great propaganda blitz akin to the glory days of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and the 2002 World Cup—heralding South Korea’s debut as a major power able to compete with the rest of the world.

In the end, Korea’s turn hosting this year’s 25th edition of the quadrennial shindig ended up being somewhat of a national embarrassment. Officials talked about staging events indoors, to which aggrieved parents of American and British kids said no thanks to that—and pulled out before it was all over. Others followed.

By Thursday, all 36,000 Scouts had fled what was described as “wetlands,” moving to dry land and indoor lodging, even as Typhoon Khanun bore down upon the country, pouring more water onto the scene and creating more fears and havoc. The Americans had one break: Many moved to Camp Humphreys, the sprawling base south of Seoul that is headquarters for the 28,500 U.S. troops in the country.

In a grandstanding attempt at saving face, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo pledged “impeccable support until the departure of all Scouts,” vowing the jamboree would “continue until the weekend,” somehow according to schedule.

Ultimately, while many of the scouts headed home, bedraggled remnants were hanging on for the finale: a K-Pop concert.

A picture of scouts leaving their campsite at the World Scout Jamboree

Scouts prepare to leave the campsite of the World Scout Jamboree Organizers of the World Scout Jamboree asked host South Korea on August 7 to “urgently” evacuate tens of thousands of children from their campsite ahead of a typhoon, just days after a heatwave caused mass scout illnesses.

Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

Now, organizers of the Scout Jamboree are being blamed for being ill-prepared for the scorching heat wave and Typhoon Khanun.

The backlash has been swift: The chief of the British Scouts, Matt Hyde, told the BBC: “It wasn’t safe in there.” The wetland where they encamped was allegedly infested with mosquitoes, and parents complained about “filthy” toilets, bad food, and a lack of air conditioning in a heatwave that had hundreds of children falling ill.

The situation even had some media outlets and social media posts likening the jamboree to the 2017 Fyre Festival, the disastrous music festival that promised an influencer-packed luxury weekend at the Bahamas, only to deliver cheese sandwiches and disaster tents instead.

“How Could the Scout Jamboree Debacle Happen?” headlined Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper. “The sweltering heat is not the only problem… Organizers claim to have spent six years and more than W100 billion ($77 million) preparing for the quadrennial event, but the facilities are ill-equipped for the huge numbers,” the article read. “The question must be asked how on earth Korea managed to successfully host other global events like the Olympics and World Cup.”

Horror of horrors, the paper warned darkly, Korea “could end up being pilloried by the international community.”

Splurging

Newly released spending details shared by organizers in the aftermath of the fiasco have only added to the public cry, with South Korean politicians and bureaucrats now being accused of cutting corners and mishandling funds.

“The 2023 World Scout Jamboree is under scrutiny regarding its allocation and use of public funds,” the website NK News reported. “A substantial portion of the funds was dedicated to operational and personnel expenses rather than critical infrastructure like shower and bathroom stalls at the campsite. Of the total budget of $88.9 million (117.1 billion won), 74 percent was allocated for personnel expenses and operational costs, including travel and the K-pop concert associated with the jamboree.”

As for the encampment set up for the kids, according to NK news, “The expenditure on campsite infrastructure amounted to just $15.6 million (20.5 billion won), with facilities like toilets, showers and drinking fountains costing around $9.9 million (13 billion won) or 11 percent of the total.”

The leader of the ruling People Power Party, Kim Gi-hyeon, reported that officials of one sort or another traveled overseas 99 times “under the pretext of Jamboree preparations,” alleging that “many of these trips were frivolous, with the money potentially squandered on expensive tourist experiences instead of genuine business requirements.”

Amid calls for an investigation of “any illicit profiteering from the budget,” said NK News, more than 1,000 otherwise healthy kids have been whisked to nearby clinics and hospitals suffering from the heat and the food. The rest were transferred to hotels, inns, dormitories and even the World Cup Stadium in Seoul.

A picture of people cooling down inside at the World Scout Jamboree

Water bottles are seen next to people cooling down by a fan in the welcome centre of the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, North Jeolla province on August 5, 2023.

Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

But why did it take so long for authorities to respond to a crisis that many at first could hardly believe was happening?

Yonhap, the quasi-official South Korean news agency, said the event since its opening last week “had been plagued with complaints about the campsite’s poor conditions, combined with the extreme heat wave, while hundreds were treated for heat-related illnesses.” Contingents from the U.S., Britain and Singapore, it said, “cut their journey short and left the campsite earlier than scheduled.”

“An overwhelming amount of the 117.1 billion-won ($89.5 million) budget for the world event was used for operational and personnel expenses instead of for the setting up of infrastructure, such as shower and bathroom stalls, at the campsite,” it said.

A spokesperson for the ruling party, Kang Min-suk, is now calling for an audit of the spending.

“We need to thoroughly check whether taxpayers’ money was used in the right places, whether there was any fault in the management of the event’s budget or in the preparations, and if any fault is found, those responsible should be brought to account.”

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