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South Korea’s Failed World Expo Bid Sparks President Yoon’s First Apology

On November 28, the Bureau International des Expositions, an intergovernmental organization that manages Expos, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, to host the World Expo 2030.

Most South Koreans were shocked. They believed Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, located on the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula, stood a fair chance. Last year, the government and the media anticipated a narrow defeat. Then, in the months leading up to the vote, they fielded a narrative of overtaking Riyadh in the second round of voting. Amid high hopes, the humiliating gap of votes – 119 votes for Riyadh and 29 for Busan – was all the more staggering. 

This, however, wasn’t the only surprise. “Everything was due to my shortcomings,” South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol said during a hastily announced address to the nation shortly after the Expo vote. He even extended his “sincere apology.” It was the first time Yoon had apologized for anything in his term, let alone admitting personal accountability. That in itself was a sign that some things had been ominously out of kilter, but nobody righted the ship or faced the reality. 

People are upset not so much by Busan’s rout but by the fact that it was the result of the same complacency and misguided conviction with which the Yoon administration has governed the country. 

In all honesty, the defeat shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The South Korean economy by GDP may be bigger than Saudi Arabia’s, but it’s the latter that has the actual power and will to bend the world to its liking. Most outside observers had long predicted that Riyadh would be chosen. Reports and news in favor of Riyadh had been abounding. Yet, the South Korean government and media had told different stories, and South Koreans believed them. Together, they were in collective denial, trapped in confirmation bias. 

The glaring vote difference, however, cannot be ignored. It is high time that the Yoon administration tidied up its modus operandi. The World Expo vote reveals that South Korea’s diplomacy, strategy, and intel are all spluttering.

According to Yoon himself, he “met 96 heads of state” and personally appealed to them to vote for Busan. The government allocated over $400 million to advertising for Busan’s bid. The entire Foreign Ministry dedicated itself to selling Busan, including its arm in UNESCO. Ministers and officials had trotted the globe. The First Lady designed and produced the Busan Expo merch herself and wore it to summits.

Yet all this World Expo diplomacy completely missed the mark. 

Yoon speak ambitiously of his “global pivotal diplomacy.” Rhetoric of value and promises of future collaboration carry weight of their own and are important. Besides some meet-and-greets and arms deals, however, his diplomatic attention span is mostly reserved for Washington and Tokyo. Experts have long described his diplomacy as not engaging and inclusive enough, but inducing isolation. The opposition Democratic Party (DP) faults his focus on Washington-Seoul-Tokyo trilateral relations for failing to court other corners of the world. 

Yoon’s consequential spat with China also alienated Africa, where China plays an increasingly important role and is perceived as a positive force – China allegedly coerced some countries in Africa and Latin America to rescind their support for Busan. 

The DP maintains that the Expo humiliation should serve as a wake-up call for Yoon to “change the paradigm of our diplomacy.” According to Lee Jun-seok, a former chairman of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), Yoon’s security stance, although not wrong in Lee’s opinion, hurts South Korea’s chance of hosting global events.

Yoon’s diplomacy should have presented at least a vision, if not concrete blueprints, of a landscape where Seoul and Beijing are not so hostile to each other and where developing countries can toggle back and forth without fears of losing their limbs.

South Korea’s business strategy to woo other countries flopped, too. The voting pattern in an intergovernmental body is largely quid-pro-quo. South Korean officials have time and again referred to their strategy as “not handing out fish, but teaching how to fish.” Their offer wasn’t tangible, but ideological and visionary, such as promises of technology transfer and collaboration in such fields as climate change, fishery, food security, and renewable energy.

When South Korea’s economic model can’t be replicated in most other countries, Seoul’s rhetoric of sharing its expertise in exponential economic growth sounds hopeful but a tad condescending. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia packed a real punch. For instance, Riyadh proposed billions of dollars in financing Saudi exports and development schemes for African nations. It also offered debt relief and conflict resolution in the African continent, coupled with $25 billion worth of investment. In times of economic turmoil and rampant terrorism, Saudi plans are hard to decline. Seoul’s talk was nice but cheap compared to Saudi’s well-fleshed tender. 

Yet the Yoon administration rested assured that South Korean conglomerates and K-pop idols were punching above their shoulders. CEOs of South Korea’s global household brands toured the world, oftentimes on Yoon’s coattails, parroting the government PR line and giving credence to Yoon’s promises of future cooperation. They also spent an undisclosed amount of money in wrapping cars and public transportation with Busan Expo panels and hanging banners promoting the city. They did so in major Western cities, when the fate of the vote hinged on winning over developing countries.

The government also enlisted a host of K-pop idols as Busan Expo’s ambassadors. BTS performed a concert in Busan last October, and other glitzy idols appeared in promotional clips. In South Korea’s finale video just before the Expo vote in Paris, PSY’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” played as background music. Gangnam is a posh neighborhood in Seoul, completely irrelevant in both ethos and architecture to Busan. This is another aspect South Koreans are disgruntled about: The administration failed to underline Busan’s distinct appeal and vibe as a South Korea’s coastal economic hub a short boat ride from Japan and a vibrant vacation spot. South Korean culture doesn’t stop at K-pop.

With four months left until the 2024 general election, voters’ frustration is a pressing concern. Following Yoon’s national apology, the chairman of the PPP, Kim Gi-hyeon, also apologized “on behalf of my party.” The humbling Expo result is merely the latest addition to the string of the Yoon administration’s bungling. And the PPP knows that it’s hanging by a thread. 

It’s good that Yoon and his party are bowing their heads. However much it’s intended for the general election, it potentially signals a degree of change in their governing styles. Still, many in the government blame the previous administration for not committing to Busan’s bid from early on. But it’s both not right and too late to carp about external factors. 

There’s also much talk attributing Busan’s failure to Saudi Arabia’s “oil money” that bought off votes and to the inevitability of loss in the face of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s iron-grip sovereign power. That is a true diplomatic gaffe. There should be no beef between Riyadh and Seoul over the World Expo. 

Now is the moment for the government to shed old habits and brace itself for Yoon’s remaining term. 

Source : The Diplomat