By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's political tensions with North Korea and China are depressing ticket sales for the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, leaving hundreds of thousands of tickets unsold, the organiser said on Friday.
France said on Thursday its Winter Olympics team will not travel to South Korea if security cannot be guaranteed, as tensions escalate over North Korea's nuclear programme following its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3.
Hurting ticket sales in China, Beijing has banned group tours to South Korea following Seoul's decision to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system to counter North Korean threats. Beijing says the system's powerful radar is a threat to its security.
"The political issues are having an impact on ticket sales," said Eom Chan-wang, director general of marketing bureau at the Pyeongchang Organising Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
"China, which represents the biggest market, barely bought tickets so far," he said in an interview with Reuters on Friday.
The Games are to be held in February, 2018, but as of Sept. 18, only 312,000 tickets were sold, about 29.2 percent of its targeted sales of 1.07 million tickets.
Some 191,000 tickets were sold overseas, 59.7 percent of the target sales of 320,000 tickets. Organisers aim to sell 750,000 tickets at home, but so far only 120,000 tickets were sold or 16 percent of the target.
However, Games organisers expected sales to rise in China, once people are allowed to directly buy tickets online from Oct. 16, instead of going through "authorised ticket resellers".
"There will be no problems with selling all of the tickets, but the biggest task is how many celebrities and VIPs will come from overseas to boom up the event, which will be affected by the geopolitical situation," said Eom.
He said the government was trying to encourage North Korean athletes to participate in the Games to ensure safety during the event.
"President (Moon Jae-in) is strongly committed to make the Olympics a peaceful Olympics," he said.
"South Koreans don't take the North Korean matter seriously, unlike those who live overseas. Foreigners are concerned South Korea is a dangerous place, but it is very peaceful here."
The U.N. Secretary General has warned against "sleepwalking" into a war on the Korean peninsula, after U.S. President Donald Trump said North Korea would be destroyed if it threatens the United States and its allies. The North in response said it may test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
A Gallup Korea poll earlier this month found 58 percent of South Koreans said they don't think another war will break out on the Korean peninsula, the second-highest percentage since the survey first began in 1992.
Eom expected South Koreans to rush to buy tickets as the Games near, as they did at previous international events in South Korea.
A corruption scandal in South Korea involving former President Park Geun-hye and large businesses including Samsung has also dented the image of the Games, which were also implicated in the scandal, said Eom.
However, the organising committee aims to break even or make a profit on the Games, by raising more money from public corporations and the government, Eom said.
The committee has raised 940.5 billion won ($829.97 million) so far in domestic sponsorship from companies including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, slightly exceeding its target of 940 billion won.
The committee aims to raise an additional 150 billion won from several public corporations including Korea Electric Power Corp and casino operator Kwangwon land to reduce an expected shortfall of 300 billion won.
An additional government budget and lottery sales will also help the committee break even, he added.
(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin, additional reporting by Jane Chung; Editing by Michael Perry)