South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan is part of the national agenda. In its efforts to win the expo, Seoul is looking to leverage its strengths, including its business networks and naming BTS as official ambassadors, to make up ground in what may be a long shot bid against the current front runner, Saudi Arabia.
Expos are global events designed to showcase and integrate ideas and technologies to find solutions to fundamental problems facing humanity, and thus serve as vehicles for the host country’s national promotion. The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) organizes the expos, with 170 member countries voting for each expo’s host country. With the host of the 2030 World Expo to be elected by the 170 BIE member states in late 2023, diplomacy is at the forefront of competition. Of the five original bids to host, Busan and Riyadh emerged as the top two contenders. Russia withdrew its submission over politicization regarding its invasion of Ukraine. Likewise, Ukraine’s bid remains questionable given the ongoing conflict. Italy’s bid is largely a local effort, putting it behind South Korea and Saudi Arabia’s government promoted bids.
South Korea has multiple experiences with the Expo. The 1993 Daejeon Expo displayed Korea’s rapid development in the preceding decades, effectively establishing the country as a leader in attaining balanced development and the harmonization of traditional and modern technologies. The 2012 Yeosu Expo promoted the city’s capabilities in coastal environment protection, focusing on South Korea’s commitment to fighting marine disasters. In comparison to these mid-sized specialized expos, the World Expo presents an even bigger opportunity to engage in national branding by granting greater discretion in the choice of theme and infrastructure.
South Korea’s strategy for the Expo bid is to leverage its business networks, technological development, and pop culture status. South Korea’s top conglomerates banded together to form the World Expo Bidding Committee, a business-led civilian organization made of 11 companies, including SK, Samsung, and Hyundai. Companies have been actively leading diplomatic efforts to garner support for South Korea’s bid. SK Chairman Chey Tae-won visited Paris to attend a BIE conference, where he participated in promotional activities. Samsung engaged both Southeast Asian and Latin American countries by meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and officials in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic to discuss business relations. The South Korean government is also working in-tandem with companies. As Hyundai invited 23 officials from multiple Latin American countries to its motor studio, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin proposed resuming FTA talks with Mexico and has pushed for economic engagement with regional blocs.
South Korean companies have an interest in using the bid as an opportunity to expand global partnerships and tout technological developments. Under the theme “Transforming our World, Navigating Toward a Better Future,” the expo focuses on how technology can address global issues such as sustainability, climate change, and social justice.
In order to support South Korea’s bid, part of the strategy has been to bring attention to the K-Pop industry. A major move was the bid committee’s decision to appoint BTS as the ambassadors for South Korea’s bid. As part of its ambassadorship, BTS will hold global concerts, with one in Busan scheduled for October. With its popularity, BTS is expected to bring attention not just to the expo bid, but also Busan itself.
Hosting the 2030 World Expo in Busan also entails significant economic ramifications, with Busan’s Mayor Park Hyung-joon even contending that the city’s future depends on whether it is able to host the expo or not. This is because the success of Busan’s major infrastructure projects, including the redevelopment of the North Port and the construction of the Gadeokdo New Airport, are highly dependent on the inflow of expo participants and tourists. With the new developments to be used as the expo site and main transit point for visitors, the inflow of the estimated 50 million visitors will be crucial to invigorating the local economy. While the estimated economic effects for expos are usually much higher than the actual effects, holding the 2030 Expo in Busan is also expected to create up to 500,000 jobs within the span of 6 months.
Building on its success at Dubai’s 2022 World Expo, Saudi Arabia has made great strides in attracting support. Saudi Arabia’s shared interests and ties with regional neighbors have secured the support of the regional organizations, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. In addition to these international blocs, Saudi Arabia is backed by a few Asian states including Indonesia and Bangladesh.
South Korea’s diplomatic efforts have been more limited. Rather than gaining the votes of entire regional blocs, engagement has been focused on individual foreign officials and groups of business leaders. In order to contend with Saudi Arabia’s broad strategy, Korean officials have met with African envoys and economic ministers in the Pacific. However, no country has yet explicitly stated its support for South Korea.
South Korea is leveraging its strengths by using its business connections abroad and promoting upcoming advancements in technology. Concentrating its efforts in the private sector, Korean corporations are a key part of diplomatic outreach. Utilizing the popularity of K-pop also provides an opening to engage foreign audiences and gain interest globally. As South Korea contends with Saudi Arabia’s early lead, its efforts to tie together its strengths in business and culture highlight its determination to win the bid.
Yu Na Choi was previously an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Kaitlyn King and Jae Chang are currently Interns at KEI. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
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