Carrying huge backpacks and water bottles, tens of thousands of scouts began arriving at university dormitories, government and corporate training centres, and hotels around Seoul and other inland cities on Tuesday as the South Korean government evacuated the World Scout Jamboree ahead of a tropical storm.
The South Korean government had scrambled to keep the 12-day gathering of scouts going in the face of struggles with heat, hygiene and land use controversies, as thousands of British and American scouts departed over the weekend.
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that officials announced the decision to abandon the coastal campsite in Saemangeum, a huge area reclaimed from the sea in the southwestern county of Buan, after forecasters raised alarms that Tropical Storm Khanun was heading toward the Korean Peninsula.
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As of Tuesday evening, Khanun was passing through waters 60 kilometres (36 miles) south of Japan’s Yakushima island, which is south of the southern main island of Kyushu. Japan’s weather agency issued warnings for heavy rain and high winds in the southern regions of Kyushu and parts of Shikoku island, east of Kyushu.
The 37,000 scouts, who hailed from 156 countries and were mostly teenagers, folded up their tents before boarding over 1,000 vehicles for the evacuation that began Tuesday morning. The World Organization of the Scout Movement said all youth participants had safely departed from the Jamboree campsite as of Tuesday evening.
Most of the scouts will be accommodated in Seoul and the surrounding area.
South Korean officials say the Jamboree will continue in the form of cultural events and activities, including a K-Pop concert in Seoul on Friday.
Scouts from Britain, who had transferred to hotels in Seoul over the weekend because of the extreme heat at the Jamboree site, visited a war memorial and the former presidential palace.
Matt Hyde, the chief executive of UK Scouts, said the organization will need to use more than 1 million pounds from its reserves to cover the cost of moving 4,500 scouts and adult volunteers, an expense that could impact its activities for the next five years.
UK Scouts had become increasingly concerned about sanitation, the availability of food, medical services and the “punishing heat.”
“We feel let down by the organizers because we repeatedly raised some of these concerns before we went, and during, and we were promised things were going to be put in place and they weren’t,” Hyde told the BBC.
Hundreds of scouts from Norway had already left the site on Monday, citing concerns about the complications of moving together with tens of thousands of other scouts. Geir Olav Kaase, leader of the Norwegian contingent, said the scouts arrived at their hotels in Incheon by 9 p.m. Monday.
The 1,500-member Swedish contingent was transferred to three university dormitories in the central city of Cheonan.
Northern European nations are dealing with their own extreme weather, with strong winds and rains causing floods, damaging buildings and knocking out electricity at thousands of homes in Norway and Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Latvia.
The North Jeolla provincial government, which governs Buan, had hoped that the Jamboree would draw attention and investment to a controversial swath of reclaimed land.
Concerns had been raised beforehand about having such large numbers of young people in a vast, treeless area lacking protection from the heat as South Korea grappled with one of its hottest summers in years. After the Jamboree began, hundreds of participants were treated for heat-related ailments.
The government insisted the event was safe enough to continue and channelled resources to keep the event going, adding medical staff, air-conditioned buses, military shade structures, and hundreds of workers to maintain bathrooms and showers, which some scouts had complained were filthy or unkempt.
Saemangeum is the result of a 19-year project to build a 33-kilometre (21 mile) seawall, which South Korea describes as the world’s longest.
Since the wall was finished in 2010, the land the wall helped to reclaim from the sea remains largely barren. Once seen as a major development project for a region lacking an industrial base, it’s now increasingly viewed as an ecological blunder that wiped out coastal wetlands and hurt fisheries production.
Local government officials insist that the project remains key to the region’s economic future, despite its failure to deliver on early promises.
In a 2018 document describing its successful bid to host, the North Jeolla provincial government wrote that its main reason for hosting the event was to lure badly needed infrastructure investment to the area after initial plans didn’t progress as hoped.
“North Jeolla Province needed a project that could spur the construction of an international airport and other SOC (social overhead capital) investments to further encourage the development of Saemangeum’s inner areas,” provincial officials wrote, using an acronym that refers to infrastructure projects.
Local officials continue to pursue plans for new highways, ports and an international airport. The airport was initially supposed to be built for the Jamboree, but construction hasn’t started yet.
Organizers said the campsite will not be used for any other events after the scouts leave.
Tropical Storm Khanun has meandered around Japan’s southwestern islands for more than a week, dumping heavy rain, knocking out power and damaging homes.
Early on Tuesday, the storm was centred 350 kilometres (217 miles) south of Kagoshima, a city on the southwestern tip of Japan’s main southern island of Kyushu. Khanun produced winds of 108 km/h (67 m.p.h.) with gusts up to 144 km/h (89 m.p.h.) and was slowly moving north, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported.
The West Japan Railway Co. said it would suspend some Shinkansen bullet train services on the country’s main island of Honshu from Wednesday evening through Thursday morning. Flights and ferries in and out of Kagoshima in southern Kyushu also were suspended Tuesday, according to the prefecture.
South Korea’s weather agency, which measured the storm at typhoon strength with max winds of 126 km/h (78 m.p.h.) as of 9 p.m. Tuesday, expected it to gain strength slightly before making landfall Thursday morning. It’s expected to bring strong winds and heavy rains to South Korea from Wednesday to Friday.
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In an emergency meeting to discuss the storm on Tuesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called for officials to be aggressive with disaster prevention measures, including evacuations of residents in risk areas, to prevent injuries or deaths. He also said the country will do its “utmost” to ensure the safety of the scouts so that they can “return home with good memories.”
South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety instructed local officials to prepare to shut down coastal areas, hiking trails, river parks, underpass tunnels and other places vulnerable to flooding.
More than 270 police cars and four helicopters were deployed to escort the buses transporting the scouts, said Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min.
“This is the first time in more than 100 years of World Scout Jamborees that we have had to face such compounded challenges,” said Ahmad Alhendawi, secretary-general of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, who credited South Korea’s government of “mobilizing all available resources” into the relocation effort.
“It’s disappointing that these adverse weather conditions have forced us to shift our plans,” he said.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cara Rubinsky in London contributed to this report.