16.01.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Busan Failure

Busan Failure

On November 28, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) held its meeting in Paris on the election of the host country of the World Expo-2030. Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Busan (Republic of Korea) and Rome (Italy) were considered the main candidates.

According to preliminary estimates, hosting the exhibition could earn South Korea 61 trillion won ($47 billion), attract at least 50 million tourists and create 500 thousand new jobs.

A delegation of South Korean business representatives led by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo arrived to support the South Korean bid. This was the final moment of a long and truly unprecedented campaign. The race to host EXPO-2030 began in 2019 after the Moon Jae-in administration declared it a national project. However, proper work in this direction only began in July 2022, when the current, Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration created a joint public-private committee to organize the exhibition, two months after the government was established.

Since then, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has held 462 meetings with officials from 96 countries (including more than 150 meetings with state leaders) and personally visited 12 countries to support Busan’s bid. In particular, Yoon visited Paris twice in 2023 alone. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo has held more than 150 meetings with officials from 90 countries.

On November 28, South Korea held the final presentation of its bid to host the World Expo-2030 in Paris, which was attended by such prominent figures as UN Ex-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Mayor of Busan Park Heong-joon, and K-pop stars including Psy, of the Gangnam Style fame.

“World Expo-2030 in Busan is not just an event; it is a transformative commitment to the synergy of nature, people and technology,” Ban Ki-moon said in his final presentation before the vote.

During the election campaign, officials in the presidential administration were pretty sure that Busan would make the cut and stage a final showdown in the second round. In an interview with YTN two days before the BIE vote, Mayor of Busan Park Heong-joon said, “With a probability of 90 percent, Korea will advance to the second round.”

Unfortunately, statements by South Korean officials and the media that Busan had very good prospects to get the right of hosting EXPO-2030 and “Korea could win the hearts of many countries”, turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. During the voting, Busan lost in the first round to Riyadh, which succeeded in getting more than 2/3 of the votes. The final tally speaks for itself: Riyadh — 119, Busan — 29, and Rome — 17 votes.

On November 29, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol apologized to the people of the country for the failure of Busan’s bid to hold the World Expo-2030. In his address to the nation, he noted that it was also his personal fault as the head of state, who should have controlled the situation literally every minute. Forecasts for victory, based on active joint actions of the public and private sectors, turned out to be far from reality, Yoon Suk-yeol noted. “I offer my sincere apology for disappointing our people, including the citizens of Busan.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo expressed publicly his regret, stating, “I sincerely apologize for not adequately reciprocating the support people have generously given us so far.” On November 30, Foreign Minister Park Chin also said that South Korea “did its best” in its campaign.

Busan is expected to continue its fight and will now campaign for hosting World Expo-2035. Additionally, on December 6, Yoon Suk-yeol visited Busan to comfort its citizens. The President met with about 100 people, including legislators, business and government representatives, who supported the World Expo-2030 campaign. Thanking them for their efforts, he noted that since the presidential campaign he had focused on the development of the country as a whole, with Seoul and Busan as the two axes: “We must start building the systems and infrastructure needed for Busan to truly develop into a logistical, financial, digital and advanced industry hub.” For this purpose, the head of state confirmed his promise to build a new international airport on Gadeokdo Island, move the headquarters of the state-owned Sanop Bank to Busan and carry out a large-scale reconstruction of Busan North Port.

The author would add to this the desire to create a unified southern region, overcoming the trends of political regionalism. Jeolla is a Democratic stronghold where they consistently poll at 80+%. Gyeongsang is a similar conservative base, with an average of 70% voting for them there.

Naturally, a witch hunt also began to find those primarily responsible for the crushing defeat.

Things are not so scary for the Conservatives: “The diplomatic experience we earned during the campaign will be a stepping stone for Korea to serve as a global pivotal state,” Chairman of the People Power Party Kim Gi-hyeon wrote on his Facebook (is banned in Russia) page. Park Jeong-ha, a member of the Parliament, stated that the country should be proud of its efforts to host the event, adding that “the efforts of the government, businesses, people and President Yoon Suk-yeol, who personally promoted the Expo bid to the leaders of 82 countries, will never be in vain.”

For the Democrats, everything is simple: “if literally ANYTHING bad happens, it is Yoon Suk-yeol’s fault.” The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) called the unsuccessful attempt a “diplomatic failure.” DPK Chairman Lee Jae-myung said it was a regrettable outcome and the DPK would make efforts to help assist Busan to carry out the other pending projects. As DPK representative Yoon Young-deok said, “The government should use this as an opportunity to review its own capability.” Meanwhile, another Democrat Jung Sung-ho wrote on his Facebook (is banned in Russia) page that “sadly, this is the level and the competence of the inept, irresponsible and unprepared Yoon administration.”

The conservative yet oppositional Korea Times suggests to “check the actual effectiveness of presidential tours.” Since taking office in May 2022, Yoon has spent more time and budget on overseas travel than any of his predecessors, with 16 overseas trips in 19 months. He traveled abroad 13 times in 2023 (more than once a month), circled the globe two and a half times and spent 57.8 billion won ($44.3 million) on overseas trips. It more than doubled the originally budgeted 24.9 billion won and tripled the yearly averages of 18.2 billion won and 16.3 billion won used by his two predecessors. But where are the results? Referring to this, DPK parliamentary faction leader Hong Ihk-pyo said, “Yoon has spent busy days and made efforts for diplomacy for Busan’s Expo bid” but “it appears to be Yoon leaking the country’s capital to foreign countries, rather than drawing investments.” “Taxpayer money must be spent more efficiently, appropriately and transparently,” and it would be much better if the more than 1 trillion won spent on the failed attempt to host the Busan World Expo were used to help developing countries struggling with climate change disaster.

People also talked that “in general, the game from the get go was not worth the candle.” Allegedly, the authorities were counting on economic benefits worth 61 trillion won and more than 50 million visitors. However, previous exhibitions in Dubai in 2021 and Milan in 2015 recorded around 24 million and 22 million visits respectively. The 2025 Osaka World Expo faces rising costs, construction delays and dwindling public support. A number of countries have canceled their participation in the six-month event. According to a survey of Japanese adults conducted by the Kyodo news agency earlier this month, 68.6% of respondents voiced the opinion that the expo was “unnecessary.”

In the author’s opinion, this is not the case. Despite the bid’s failure, the 17-month government and private sector efforts yielded positive results, including promoting Korea’s national brand and enhancing Busan’s competitiveness as a city, as exemplified by its rise to 15th place in the global Smart Center Index (SCI) among 77 major cities around the world.

Nam Jae-joon, a retired four-star general and the former director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in 2013-2014, said, “inaccurate intelligence information sounds like a more plausible reason” or that “intelligence information may have been changed to favor Korea’s claim somewhere in the reporting chain.” Considering the specifics of South Korean intelligence and the intelligence service’s habit of keeping the top person in an information cocoon, this version is not unreasonable.

Here are some conclusions. This was a very painful defeat, as in order for the exhibition to be held in Busan, the South Koreans had to bend over backward for several years, both under the Democrats and the Conservatives.

Clearly, with Riyadh running against South Korea, the question always was “if Koreans can outspend the Arabs,” especially since the Saudis began their large-scale marketing campaign much earlier. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been leading a campaign since 2021 to reinvent Saudi Arabia with ambitious and attractive post-oil projects and ultimately inherit the monarch’s throne. Saudi Arabia has committed about $7.8 billion to the EXPO, pledged to invest $25 billion in Africa, offered $10 billion to finance and insure Saudi exports, and pledged an additional $5 billion to fund the development of African countries by 2030. The oil-rich state also promised large investments and loans to countries in Central and South America, and completed its campaign with lavish treats for BIE delegates in and around Paris.

In addition, Mohammed bin Salman plans to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games, the 2034 FIFA World Cup and the 100th kingdom anniversary Asian Games in 2032.

That being said, 29 votes against 119 is still a very painful defeat, despite the fact that at almost every international meeting the President, Prime Minister or Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea personally campaigned for the hosting of the exhibition. And although the Democrats will still talk about the most shameful foreign policy failure and demand to “fire everyone involved,” according to the author, there were no obvious and noticeable drawbacks in the South Korean promotion policy. Most likely, one lobbying led to another, and here the author’s impression is that someone more influential lobbied in favor of the Saudis, namely the United States (and not at all China). Yoon Suk-yeol was given a flick on his nose to prevent him from acting too independently. Moreover, if one were to entertain conspiracy theories, one can imagine an option in which such an extremely offensive failure for society will be used as a reason for rocking the boat and an internal political crisis so that Yoon is replaced by someone more obstinate, or the President of the Republic of Korea finally learns the lesson and begins to do everything that is required of him.

It is no coincidence that Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, said the result of the vote raised doubts and undermined confidence in the government’s diplomatic capabilities. “In the short term, this will likely have a negative impact on the ruling bloc’s performance in the 2024 elections in their strongholds of Busan and the surrounding region… the issue will likely not remain on the long-term election agenda given the time remaining.”


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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