On the morning of Dec. 19, South Korean President Moon Jae-in boarded a KTX Gyeonggang high-speed train to head to Gangneung, the site of four venues for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Games.
As President Moon stepped onto the presidential train, he was greeted by journalists, volunteers for the upcoming Olympic Games, committee members, 20 South Korean citizens and one face familiar to locals here.
That face belonged to Young Jae Park, a junior-year student at Elyria Catholic High School and the only member on board to have traveled internationally for the occasion.
Three months earlier in September, Park entered the “Hello Pyeongchang Idea Olympics,” an online contest sponsored by President Moon that challenged South Korean citizens to solve two issues posed by the Winter Olympic Games.
First, several stadiums and training centers were constructed in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the Winter Olympic Games. President Moon turned to contestants to answer the question of what to do with them after the Olympics were finished.
Second, the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, where the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies will be held, is a roofless, open-air coliseum. Given that the average winter temperature in Pyeongchang is -20 degrees and an Olympic ceremony can last several hours, contest participants were tasked with finding a way to keep guests warm.
Park submitted solutions to the issues like hundreds of other South Korean citizens, but he “never expected” that he would be selected as one of 10 winners.
In December, Park received a call after school notifying him that he had won and that the organization would arrange for his transportation to a meeting with President Moon.
“Where are you in Seoul?” the voice on the phone asked him, referring to the capital of South Korea.
“I’m actually in America,” Park replied.
“America?” the caller asked. “What are you doing entering a contest in South Korea?”
After Park clarified that he is an international student living with a host family in the United States, he reported that the contest organizers offered to pay for his plane ticket to South Korea on Dec. 16.
Two days before his departure, Annie Cunningham reported overhearing Park talking to a friend in class about his upcoming travel plans. It was the first she had heard of him winning the contest.
“Wait a minute,” Cunningham interrupted. “Where are you going?”
For Cunningham, Elyria Catholic’s director of communications and marketing, Park’s travel plans meant one thing: paperwork. Although Park had the necessary paperwork to travel to South Korea, in order to return to the United States in the new year he would need to submit an additional I-20 Form.
“I’m imagining what would have happened if I didn’t overhear that conversation: Young Jae getting stopped at customs and told he couldn’t come back to the United States,” Cunningham said. She described the next two days as a “frantic dash” to get Park’s I-20 Form signed and processed--no less because it was the holidays.
At the end of a 16-hour, red-eye flight, Park looked down on Seoul from his plane window to find the nation’s capital blanketed in snow. It was the first time he had seen his hometown in the winter in over four years.
Park first came to the United States during an international campus tour of Boston, Massachusetts. It was during that impressionable, seventh-grade trip that Park developed a dream that he would hold onto for the coming years and into his college application process: attending Boston College.
Following the trip, Park was invited to live and study with a family friend, Jae Hwan Seo, who lives in North Olmsted, Ohio and has hosted international students from South Korea in the past. It was no Boston, but it was “at least the United States,” Park said.
“Mr. Seo,” as he is more commonly referred to in Lorain County, initially enrolled Park in St. Brendan’s School, a Catholic middle school in North Olmsted. However, after one semester, Park successfully applied to the more competitive Elyria Catholic High School.
Park’s admission to Elyria Catholic occurred at a time when Cunningham said he was “shy” and “could only speak English in fragments.” Four years later, in his second-to-last year of high school, Park sits across from me in the high school’s cafeteria. He’s more than capable of explaining a range of topics to me, from former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment to his opinion of North Korea’s participation in this year’s Winter Games.
Pursuing a dream to study halfway across the world comes with its costs, of course. For Park, that means only returning to South Korea to visit his friends and family once a year in the summertime. “I can’t go back in the winter because of the high costs,” he told me, referring to the price of seasonal plane tickets.
Winning the Pyeongchang Idea Olympics, then, carried two prizes: not only would Park have the chance to meet President Moon, but he would welcome in the new year with family and childhood friends for the first time since his sixth-grade year.
Three days after touching down in in Seoul, Park received a phone call instructing him to go to Seoul Station, one of the nation’s largest railway stations. “I was confused. I didn’t know why they wanted me to go there,” Park recalled. He had expected that his meeting with the President Moon would occur at the president’s executive office.
When Park arrived at Seoul Station, he learned that his meeting with President Moon would take place over lunch on the South Korean government’s presidential train, more commonly called “Train 1.” It was the first time that South Korean citizens would be allowed on board the exclusive presidential train since its opening in 1979.
Park was joined by the nine other contest winners in his 40-minute train ride with President Moon, but the North Olmsted resident managed to speak with South Korea’s president one-on-one for a few minutes. It was then that Park learned what had won him the contest that so many South Korean citizens had entered unsuccessfully: his solution to the problem of what to do with the Winter Olympic Games stadiums.
While most entrants suggested demolishing the stadiums after the Winter Olympic Games, Park proposed that they be preserved and used as off-season training grounds for South Korean Olympic national teams. The proposal, President Moon told Park, was being adapted into a national policy.
Sitting in Elyria Catholic’s cafeteria and reflecting on the day, Park said, “It’s like a dream now.”
Oddly enough, Park’s ride on Train 1 was not the first time that he and President Moon had met. Their first rendezvous occurred in Busan, South Korea, before Moon had been elected as South Korea’s president. At the time, Moon was giving a speech as a human rights lawyer and Park approached him to introduce himself.
Standing together in Seoul Station, Park ventured to ask if President Moon remembered him from the year before. Park laughed, thinking back to just a month before. “I can’t believe it. He said he did.”