Lifting the North’s veil at the Expo

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Lifting the North’s veil at the Expo


World Expos have long been places for countries to boast of their strength and show off some of their more exotic wares.

More than a century ago, Japan “displayed” a Taiwanese person as part of their exhibit at an Expo. Japan was flaunting their empire status after gaining more colonies through the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.

World Expos are one of the three biggest world festivals alongside the modern Olympics and the World Cup.

Among the three, the Expo has the longest history. While the first modern Olympic Games and the first World Cup were held in 1896 and 1930 respectively, the first Expo was held in London’s Crystal Palace in May 1851.

“The Great Exhibition,” as it is often called, was the stage for the prosperity and renovation brought on by the Industrial Revolution. After attending the opening ceremony of the Expo, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: “This day is one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives.”

Often, the World Expos are places where less developed countries can learn about new technologies and ideas created in advanced countries.

It is said that in the 1960s, one of those eager to learn was Eiichi Shibusawa. He became an industrialist and founded hundreds of joint stock corporations in Japan. Today Shibusawa is widely known as the “father of Japanese capitalism.”

In the late days of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the small and weak nation of Joseon thought that the World Expo would be the key to its survival. It raised its independent pavilion for the first time at the Chicago Expo of 1893. The pavilion of the “mysterious Eastern kingdom” seems to have attracted a lot of attention.

In the “Annals of King Gojong,” a Joseon participant in the Expo wrote: “There were so many spectators that the supervisor had no time to attend to them all. We had to write the names and purposes of the objects on paper and displayed them instead.”

Looking back, Joseon’s participation in the Expo seems to have been a desperate move by a country heading for a fall.

A huge Expo is being held in Shanghai right now. It is a showground for China to display the fruits of its reform and market liberalization.

North Korea has also built a pavilion there, marking its first participation in an Expo. Despite its shabbiness and simplicity, the pavilion is quite popular with visitors.

The reason, sadly, is because of the public’s curiosity about the heavily veiled country, not much different from the attention of the “blue-eyed foreigners” toward the pavilion of the hermit kingdom Joseon in 1893.

*The writer is deputy economic affairs editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Hoh Kui-seek
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