Why host the most?

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Why host the most?

Why is South Korea quite so keen to host every global jamboree going? I’ve long wondered about this, and a revealing recent JoongAng miniseries implicitly posed the same question.

How sad to see the Big O from Yeosu Expo 2012, now deserted and forlorn! But sobering to read the conclusion in the headline, that “Playing host is a surefire way to blow tax money.”

Time was when seeking to be the host with the most was a strategy that made sense. Back in the 1980s South Korea was far from famous. All most foreigners knew was bad: the Korean War, with the TV comedy “M*A*S*H” a continuing reminder. Few Koreans found that funny.

So it was a bold masterstroke when Chung Ju-yung persuaded first Park Chung Hee and then (after Park’s assassination) his self-appointed successor Chun Doo Hwan to bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics. Few expected Korea to win this prize, let alone for all to turn out so well.

Two major anticipated worries proved false. Although no communist country yet recognized the Republic of Korea, the politics that blighted the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics did not recur. China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe all sent full teams to Seoul, ignoring Pyongyang’s demand for a boycott. (Of the very few who heeded that call, frankly only Cuba was missed.)

The second fear was that the Olympics would legitimise dictatorship. But history’s dialectic turned out otherwise. 1987’s protests forced Chun to cede power, so 1988 celebrated not the butcher of Gwangju but Korea’s restored democracy. (No such luck in Beijing in 2008.)

The Seoul Olympics was a double success. It put Korea firmly on the global map in branding terms, while politically it hugely advanced Roh’s Nordpolitik. Similar opportunities are rarer and less needed now, but of course they should always be grasped as and when they do arise.

Here, credit is due to Lee Myung-bak: not a phrase I write often. Thanks to him South Korea not only weathered the 2008 financial crisis well, but leveraged it politically to become a key founding player in a new global grouping, the G20 - whose summit Seoul hosted in 2010.

Lee also pushed for Korea to be the second host, after the United States, of the new Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in 2012. Despite Lee’s bizarre delusions that Kim Jong-il would show up and surrender his nukes, the NSS was and is still a valuable top-level conclave of global leaders.

Few events can match the cachet of the Olympics or G20. Even on the Olympic front, Korea’s second foray 30 years later appears more problematic. Reports suggest that Pyeongchang 2018 isn’t all plain sailing (or skiing) on several fronts. But with three years still to go, I have every confidence that the problems will be solved and Korea will put on another great show.

More sporting triumphs? The soccer World Cup in 2002 was great for Korean morale, as the nation came together in a sea of red shirts. Foreigners remember it less fondly, for the dubious refereeing which eliminated Spain and Italy and helped propel the cohost to the quarter-finals.

The list goes on. Three Asian Games, two (soon to be three) Universiades, the world athletics championships (Daegu 2011), et al. These have two benefits. In general they all help reinforce ‘brand Korea.’ More particularly, they enable contact with North Korea even when the overall relationship is poor, as at the Incheon Asiad last autumn - though sadly nothing came of that.

On a different level, less widely publicized, South Korea is now an established fixture on the global conference and hospitality circuit. In any field which has a regular world congress of whatever-it-is, chances are they have met at least once in Korea - or plan to do so in future. (In my field I recall the 1997 World Congress of Political Science, the highlight being when a select few of us got to hear the then newly arrived senior Northern defector Hwang Jang-yop.)

Global conferences are now routine in Seoul, and increasingly other cities. Thus on April 12 the World Water Forum began in Daegu, which in 2013 hosted the World Energy Congress.

Such events have a dual rationale. Culturally they keep South Korea on the map, introducing fresh foreigners to the delights of bulgogi. And of course they fill hotel beds and restaurants.

So what’s not to like? As this newspaper’s miniseries notes, the main problem is unforeseen costs, implying over-optimism and poor planning. Yeosu expected to sell 95 percent of its expo site to private investors, recouping 530 billion won ($486 million) of the total cost of 1.8 trillion won. But so far it has no buyers, while maintenance has cost the central government 7.5 million won annually.

This fills me with regret. Having long forgiven the South Jeolla port city for a fiery fish dish that wrecked my innards back in 1982, I was keen to revisit 30 years later for the expo. The more so since I had a ball in 1993 at the previous Taejon Expo (that’s how we spelled it then).

Taejon was terrific. I took my 13-year-old son - he’s now on his second start-up - who really enjoyed the hi-tech wizardry of Samsung, LG, et al. (He was less keen, alas, on Korean food: In those days it was hard to get even a burger in Taejon.) What his dad liked most, as I wrote in the Economist, was seeing Korean families taking pride in how far their country had come.

My Taejon trip was arranged by the then Korean Overseas Information Service (KOIS, now KOCIS). I would gladly have written up Yeosu similarly, and made some enquiries. But if trips were on offer, I failed to find them - and they me. That’s a pity: I’d like to have gone.

Yet freebies for foreigners wouldn’t have helped the expo cut its eventual 60 billion won loss. They faced two further problems. Shanghai Expo 2010 was a very hard act to follow. Also, to be honest, no one had heard of Yeosu and it’s a long way from anywhere, not easy to get to.

There is a wider issue here. Much as I sympathise with efforts by Korea’s many and diverse regions to get out from under Seoul’s suffocating shadow and blow their own trumpets, the JoongAng’s miniseries gives chapter and verse on how some local governments are adept in, as another sardonic headline puts it, “Wasting taxpayer money creatively.”

Examples cited include the obviously wacky, like Goesan’s giant rice-cooking cauldron, but also Chungju’s hosting of the 2013 World Rowing Championships (99 billion won invested, but just 13.7 billion recouped). I don’t know how central and local government divvied up the bill, but in a case like that Seoul should surely fork out if the event has global importance.

Or perhaps the lesson of Chungju is that it’s time to ease up a bit. 2015 is not 1988. Thanks to Samsung and Hyundai, Psy and Hallyu, and indeed the Olympics and many other jamborees, the word is out. The world has heard of Korea now. Mission accomplished: Kudos all round.

In future, South Korea can afford to be more selective about which events it hosts. Or to put it the other way around, you can’t afford and no longer need to bid for anything and everything, regardless of cost or likely payback (whether financial or reputational). It’s time to start being more discriminating. Local governments should be especially careful with limited resources.

But will anything change, or has the hosting habit become an addiction here, even a Pavlovian reflex? For sure, South Korea is really good at it. I’d bet the same urge which made the word “hub” so popular a decade ago will keep driving the desire to host. The subtext is: Look at us! Come and see us! Don’t forget Korea! And it works. So in that sense, perhaps, it still pays off.

*The author is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, in the U.K.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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