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Despite a change in presidents and political parties, South Korea remains all-in on Busan’s bid to host the 2030 Expo.
The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower have something in common: They both were displayed at the Paris Expos. The head of the Statue of Liberty was first exhibited at the 1878 Paris Expo. The Eiffel Tower was the symbol of the Paris Expo of 1889, which was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of French Revolution.
According to the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the Inter-governmental Organization in charge of overseeing and regulating the events, Expos, often known as a World’s Fair in the United States, are all international exhibitions that last more than three weeks and are of a non-commercial nature. In the beginning, Expos were platforms to showcase innovative inventions and new technologies such as the telephone, the automobile, the typewriter, the TV, and the elevator. For example, Alexander Graham Bell revealed the telephone at the 1876 Expo held in Philadelphia, and the television, invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1927, was showcased at the 1939 New York World Expo.
In June 2021, South Korea submitted a letter of candidature to the BIE for the hosting of the World Expo 2030 in Busan. The South Korean government is making an all-out effort to win against Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the leading competitor. South Korea’s world famous boy band BTS was appointed as the honorary ambassadors for the 2030 Busan World Expo, with a proposal letter from the Busan mayor to President Yoon Suk-yeol asking to exclude the members of BTS from mandatory military service of at least 18 months. In South Korea, avoiding conscription service or getting exemption from mandatory military service is a very sensitive issue.
South Korea is also leveraging its business networks to win the bid. South Korea’s top conglomerates banded together to form the World Expo Bidding Committee, a business-led civilian organization made of 11 companies, including Samsung, SK, and Hyundai Motors.
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The 2030 Busan Expo is not the first international exhibition hosted by South Korea. The country hosted Expos in Daejeon and Yeosu in 1993 and 2012, respectively. Why is South Korea so enthusiastic about hosting another one in the midst of serious challenges like the unstable financial situation deriving from unexpected inflation, the exchange rate, and lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
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There are four types of Expos organized under the BIE: World Expos, Specialized Expos, Horticultural Expos, and the Triennale di Milano. Both the Daejeon and Yeosu Expos were “Specialized Expos.” If Busan is selected when the BIE General Assembly meets in November 2023, South Korea will host the “World Expo” event for the first time. Moreover, South Korea would be the seventh country in the world to have hosted three mega international events – the Olympics, the World Cup, and the World Expo – joining France, the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Expos provide an opportunity to celebrate major historic events. In addition to the 1889 Paris Expo, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Philadelphia hosted one in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Independence of the United States. The Daejeon Expo in 1993 marked the 100th year of Korea’s first participation in the international exposition.
King Gojong accepted an official invitation to participate in the 1893 Chicago Expo with high hopes of changing Korea’s image overseas, which at the time was associated with words like “isolated,” “reclusive,” and “hermit.” The Joseon Dynasty, which lasted almost 500 years, was on the verge of collapse as the newly modernized Meiji Japan began encroaching on the Korean Peninsula with colonizing efforts. After visiting the Vienna World Exposition in 1873, where the participation of Japan ignited “Japonism” fever in Europe, King Gojong thought the Expo could help the weakening Joseon to survive longer by garnering international support for its independence.
Similarly, the Korean Empire, which lasted only 13 years between the collapse of the Joseon Dynasty in 1897 and Japan’s annexation in 1910, participated in 1900 Paris Expo in order to introduce the empire to the world and be recognized by the international community as an independent country. Participation in the Expo was one of the desperate efforts of the Korean Empire to independently solve external challenges and stabilize the international situation surrounding the Korean peninsula.
Expos help to boost the host country’s public image and national prestige. On a more practical level, hosting the Expo is expected to bring huge economic benefits, especially in creating jobs and boosting tourism. South Korea estimates that hosting the 2030 World Expo will generate a massive 61 trillion won ($44 billion) and create 500,000 jobs. The 43 trillion won worth of production induced is four times that generated by the 2002 World Cup and two times the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The 2030 Busan Expo was placed on the national agenda in 2019 under the progressive Moon Jae-in administration. Even though the Moon administration and the conservative People Power Party (PPP) had a contentious relationship, then-PPP presidential candidate Yoon included the Busan Expo among his campaign pledges. At the press conference marking his first 100 days in office, Yoon said he would make every effort to convince the BIE member countries to accept Busan’s bid. As he did at the NATO summit last June, Yoon is expected to lobby for South Korea’s selection at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
The 2030 Busan Expo is getting full bipartisan support in South Korea. During the 129 years since the Joseon first participated in the Chicago Expo in 1893 – and was mocked for exhibiting knocked together “Corean junk” – South Korea has made astonishing achievements. At the heart of the Expo movement is a fundamental faith in the power of technology and human ingenuity to make life better for everyone. Koreans have embraced and lived that faith for over 30 years. There is no more appropriate place in the world today to host a forum for finding solutions to the fundamental challenges facing humanity than South Korea. The country is ready to take a leading role in “Transforming our world, Navigating toward a better future” as the 2030 Busan Expo’s slogan suggests.
Hae Kyung “Haley” Ahn is Senior Advisor at the Korea Economic Institute (KEI).
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