The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared!” But as 43,000 Scouts attending the World Scout Jamboree learned last week, the site and organizers at Saemangeum were anything but. The approximately 1,000-person USA contingent and the British contingent – the largest at over 4,000 attendees – pulled out last weekend after only a few days at the site, due to conditions ranging from oppressive heat to inadequate food supply and storage, to sanitation and inadequate medical care. The remaining Scouts from all nations were evacuated on Tuesday to escape an advancing typhoon.
The causes of the extreme failures in preparation are sure to be studied in the weeks and months to come. The Korea Herald identified root causes such as joint planning across five chairpersons with no central authority, warnings that went unheeded, and misuse of the 117.1 billion won (about $89 million). [Full disclosure: the author is the parent of a member of the 2023 World Scout Jamboree – USA Contingent.]
The Boy Scout slogan is “Do a Good Turn Daily!” And in the absence of strong preparation by the organizing hosts, numerous agencies and organizations stepped in, doing their good turn to salvage the World Scout Jamboree experience by taking care of the health, safety, comfort, and experience of attendees.
Lou Paulson is International Commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America and praised the support of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “At the highest levels, from [U.S. Ambassador to South Korea] Philip Goldberg all the way up to the White House, people are concerned about what has happened and provided all kinds of resources,” Paulson said. “Representatives of the embassy made sure the interface with the South Korean government was seamless, anticipated our needs, and offered services most folks don’t even realize the embassy can provide.” Those services included security coordination for the closing ceremony, interface with the U.S. Department of Defense, and medical treatment.
The U.S. military presence in South Korea has been a tremendous advantage to the USA Contingent, and the U.S. Army Garrison, Camp Humphreys housed the American Scouts and volunteers for almost a week after they left the Jamboree site. This was the USA Contingent’s second stay at Camp Humphreys, having spent the first night of the Jamboree at the Army base when it was apparent that the site was not ready for their arrival. The Army installation provided everything from hot meals – in contrast to the Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) provided the first night – to soldiers who volunteered to stand watch for security and youth protection reasons.
Sonja Kueppers is the Scoutmaster of a Washington, DC Boy Scout troop. She appreciated the hospitality shown to her son Karl, a World Scout Jamboree Scout, saying, “I am so grateful to the Camp Humphreys community for their care of our Scouts.”
Disappointment and anger were clear when site conditions first became apparent and peaked once the departure of the USA and U.K. contingents was announced. Scouts and parents who saved and raised funds for a year or more were vocal on social media and with the press that the conditions were not what they had paid for. The World Scouts is held once every four years and Scouts must be between the ages of 14 and 18. While older volunteers can return as members of the International Service Team, it is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for Scouts to attend as participants.
Scouts from other countries were housed throughout South Korea in various locations and had experiences similar to the USA Contingent. A parent of two scouts in the U.K. Contingent who asked not to be identified said, “whilst obviously not the jamboree experience my children were expecting, they have had the experience of a lifetime, learnt really valuable skills like perseverance, grit and leadership and ended up learning a lot about South Korea.”
He added, “a number of organizations have stepped in and stepped up to really provide an alternative jamboree experience for the U.K. scouts. In particular the U.K. Scout Organization – both the central team in the U.K. and the local team on the ground in Korea – have been extraordinary and worked miracles in terms of logistics and then putting a new programme together.” He credited the Seoul mayor, local Korean government, and U.K. Foreign Office for creating opportunities for U.K. Scouts that included touring the President’s Building in Seoul and visiting a number of Korean official sites.
The U.K. parent continued, “what’s impressed me is that a number of organizations, both U.K. and Korean, have come together to provide a really interesting, informative and creative programme for the U.K. scouts at short notice that has kept their spirits up. Not easy when there are about 4,000 U.K. scouts involved. Whilst it’s not what we have wanted for a Jamboree, it will turn out to be a valuable experience and a great example of organisations working together in an agile fashion to solve a problem.”
Brad Valdyke, Head of the USA Contingent, explained that while the schedule was not released in advance to protect youth, activities organized on short notice for Scout contingents from around the world included a visit to Spavis water park hosted by the city of Asan; a KT Wiz Korea professional baseball game; tours of two factories and an innovation center hosted by Samsung; and a gourmet banquet hosted by OURHOME, a premium Korean food brand. Scouts entered the banquet facility to the applause of OURHOME employees. The city of Pyeongtek and Pyeongtek University hosted a cultural show that included traditional performances that moved through time, included a Tae Kwon Do performance by members of the Korean military, and concluded with a private K-pop concert.
Valdyke stated that a Korean government ministry was assigned to each contingent to attend to their needs and provide an enriching experience. “Sure, there are times and places where the unique and long relationship of the U.S. and Republic of Korea alliance has special meaning, particularly during this year of the 70th anniversary of the alliance,” he said. “But I truly do believe they are supporting all contingents equally.” He noted that almost fifty American International Service Team members staying at Camp Humphreys and in Seoul had a special opportunity Thursday to visit to Korean contemporary museum with a special exhibit guided tour, and were then take to lunch by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.
Paulson also provided high praise for the South Korean national and regional government. “There has been a great outpouring of support,” he said. “They offered opportunities to keep Scouts engaged and understand the culture of Korea. I can’t thank the people of Korea, the Korean government, and the Korean Scout Association enough for what they’ve done.”
Aside from the government and organization response, the greater community has provided support. Paulson said, “overall, the Korean people have been unbelievably supportive. People have been asking how the Scouts are doing. Everyone in the country is concerned, and making sure youth are busy and engaged.”
Organizations, companies, and individuals both within the Camp Humphreys community and throughout South Korea have donated food, blankets, personal care items, and underwritten costs to make the most of Scouts’ experience. The Association of the United States Army and Red Cross provided supplies and medical assistance. One thousand ponchos were provided to the USA Contingent in advance of what was anticipated to be a rainy closing ceremony and concert on the back end of the typhoon. In particular, Valdyke praised the actions of the self-named “Laundry Brigade” – thirteen families, many of them Scouting families, who organized themselves to collect dirty laundry from Scouts housed at the Army base and return it, clean, each day.
The closing ceremony was held Friday, followed by a three-hour K-pop concert that Paulson noted was “something that everyone in Korea want[ed] to have happen. It brought the Scouts back together one last time for fellowship in the stadium and provided closure to the World Scout Jamboree.” Logistics were vetted by the Korean government and U.S. embassy. While some parents complained on social media that their children missed the closing ceremony due to traffic and were given a snack rather than dinner, overall reception appears to be positive.
Paulson and Valdyke noted good spirits from Scouts across multiple contingents, and Scouts from the USA Contingent wrote notes to various organizations and individuals on the bus to the closing ceremony, thanking them for their hospitality and for stepping in to salvage their World Scout Jamboree experience. Paulson said “something that brought a smile to my face is that many of those helping us at high levels had been Scouts or Eagle Scouts. It was lifelong Scouting: prior Scouts at the embassy, Department of Defense, and throughout Korea rallying to help Scouts.” Valdyke said, “it’s been a great experience. It’s been different from what they expected, but they are leaving saying that it was their World Scout Jamboree, and that the Jamboree didn’t end. No question.”
Paulson emphasized that from a Scout leader and citizen’s perspective, “you don’t really appreciate what the State Department or U.S. military can do for American citizens until you need them. They’ve come through in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” he said. “People have dedicated hours to make sure we’re taken care of in a meaningful way. From a citizen’s perspective, it makes you proud to be an American.”
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out my other columns here.