Rejoining the race to build the ‘world’s tallest’To anyone like myself, who has been privileged enough to have witnessed the incredible pace of development in South Korea over the past 10 years, what South Korea has achieved over the past 50 years comes as no great surprise. Economic prosperity combined with a movement focused on healthier living, popularly called “well-being,” has finally resulted in an amazing capital city.
Seoul can now stand proud with any large city in the world, thanks to a vision of urban renewal that led to the revitalization of the city center for the enjoyment of both citizens and visitors alike.
Competing on the world stage is no easy task, but with it comes recognition and international financial investment. South Korea has an incredibly strong and loyal domestic market that has largely been responsible for its economic prosperity. This has spilled over into the export market, with Korean companies taking over the top global spots in several areas. Seoul deserves the recognition, popularity, repeat visitor numbers and foreign investment that, for example, Singapore and Hong Kong presently enjoy. However, despite a world-class international airport in Incheon and a modern rail system, something else is needed.
Korean construction companies have built some of the tallest and most talked about buildings in the world. However, not one of these buildings currently stands in South Korea. This is something that must be rectified in the future if Seoul is truly going to become a leading international city. Why allow others to take the credit? These buildings, such as the Burj Dubai, are lightning rods, reaping untold benefits in terms of publicity on the world stage. They also create desire, something that is crucial, as all good salespeople know, in attracting interest and committed investment.
Talking to the citizens of Seoul, many are disappointed by their skyline. Seoul’s tallest skyscrapers no longer cut it. Koreans are aware that when compared to Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, for example, Korea’s skyline is severely lacking. Now is the time to change the law preventing the construction of skyscrapers that could compete with the likes of the Burj and allow the city to rise again, literally. It has already risen from the ashes of the last century. Now it is time to let the phoenix soar and give the Korean people something else to be proud of.
This is not only an argument to build the newest, biggest and best. There is a greater global benefit than simply attracting global attention. Seoul can lead the way for the rest of the world in terms of “green” social infrastructure development. Construction should include cutting-edge technologies developed by local companies utilizing the most energy efficient materials and recyclables with renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind) supplying the energy and heat. Seoul can provide the rest of the world with a vision for the future.
Raising Seoul’s international profile while at the same time making money has been taking place in another key area. In spite of the rather unfortunate MICE acronym, the Korean government has developed the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions program into a major success story. Perhaps the culmination of this is the hosting of the next G-20 Summit.
MICE brings with it international exposure, which will in turn raise the international profile of Korea. Additionally, business visitors typically spend double the amount of money of an ordinary tourist. In 2008 Korea ranked ninth in the world for the number of international conferences it hosted. The leader was the United States with 1,079 international conferences. In terms of sheer economic benefit, Canada made around $60 billion from this industry in 2006.
Such events provide an excellent opportunity for the international community to experience Korea, a country that they may have heard of vaguely but have never visited. Korea showcased in this way comes off extremely well. Many first-time visitors are pleasantly surprised by the level of advancement and technological development that greets them. This is something money can’t buy and creates a positive impression.
Outside the realm of finance, another factor to consider is the presence of North Korea and unresolved tensions. Until that situation is finally decided, with a peace treaty or peaceful reunification along the lines of Germany, building the next “world’s tallest” may present an obvious and irresistible target.
The economic and social disparities between the North and the South have never been more pronounced. This may be the one thing that could push the North over the edge. Living in Seoul today, where daily life presents no tangible threat, it is very easy to forget the true situation. However, in comparison, Singapore and Hong Kong are far more geographically secure, fearing neither imminent attack nor the collapse of a neighboring country.
Perhaps one of the most amusing stories for me, and the most tragic for my Korean friends, concerns the lack of general knowledge within the international community of South Korea. Prior to the 2002 World Cup, one of the European coaches apparently inquired with some concern about an upcoming match. He asked officials what would happen should any of his players be injured and whether any hospitals existed in South Korea.
Build it and they will come. Build it and even if they do not come, they will certainly be aware that in Korea hospitals do exist. Seoul needs a new crowning glory. It cries out for one. There are new architectural buildings, such as the Zaha Hadid building at Dongdaemun, and there are traditional buildings, but there is no world-class, groundbreaking building project being constructed by Koreans on home soil. This is especially interesting given the current president’s background. If ever there was a person for the job it is him.
Cheonggye Stream was a massive project and deservedly it was that vision that won him the presidency. Let us see some more of that vision. Only then will Korea take its rightful place in the sun on the international stage for all to see.
Victoria Perry is from New Zealand
and currently serves as a professor
at Induk University in Seoul.