Daejeon's ambitions crystallize in October congress
But that was 29 years ago. And it didn't follow a global pandemic.
Daejeon, a humble city of 1.45 million located 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Seoul, doesn't expect to duplicate the miracle of the Taejeon Expo ’93 later this year when it hosts a meeting of local government leaders from across the world.
For Daejeon Mayor Heo Tae-jeong, success or failure will not be counted in the number of visitors. It’s all about leaving an impression – about telling the world that his city exists.
“We haven't hosted a large-scale international event after the Taejeon Expo ’93,” Heo told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview at his office Monday. “This is our first in three decades.
“In Korea, Daejeon has a reputation of being the 'city of science.' But in the international community, that’s not the case. Hopefully, the upcoming event will be a great opportunity to promote our world-class R&D, research institutes and KAIST.”
During the interview, conducted by the paper’s CEO Cheong Chul-gun, Heo talked about the 2022 Daejeon United Cities & Local Governments (UCLG) World Congress, scheduled from Oct. 10 to 14, and how preparations are coming along. Following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
As head of the event’s organizing committee, what meaning does the UCLG World Congress hold for Daejeon and what exactly is the UCLG World Congress?
The UCLG is the largest organization of local and regional governments in the world and the only local government organization recognized by the United Nations. Its members are 240,000 local and regional governments from 140 different countries. The UCLG World Congress is held every three years, and this year’s meeting is the seventh. Leaders of local and regional governments as well as international organizations gather to discuss worldwide issues and the roles that local and regional governments should play in dealing with them. By hosting the 7th UCLG World Congress, Daejeon will hopefully be recognized as an international city that leads world peace and be able to showcase its know-how in the MICE [meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions] industry. It will also be able to promote its reputation as Korea's backbone of science and smart city technology. We expect more than 3,000 people from 140 countries to visit Daejeon for the UCLG World Congress, excluding their accompanying families.
What is this year’s agenda?
Under the main theme “Local and Regional Governments Breaking Through as One,” members will discuss the 17 sustainable development goals [SDG] of the United Nations and ways to solve the various problems that arose since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the center of these talks will be sustainability. This year, we’ll be talking extensively about carbon neutrality. There will also be a message of peace. When the UCLG World Secretariat visited Korea earlier this month, we took them to the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ]. I told [UCLG] Secretary General Emilia [Saiz Carrancedo] how the two Koreas got separated, and she laid her hand on my shoulder as if I had a relative in North Korea. In light of the war in Ukraine, we suggested issuing a message of peace during this year’s UCLG World Congress, and the Secretariat agreed.
How are preparations coming along?
We now have only six months left until the UCLG World Congress, and we’re making sure everything’s coming together. During the five-day meeting, a special exhibition on Daejeon’s smart city initiative will be held at the Daejeon Convention Center’s Second Exhibition Hall, which opened just recently, and 32 festivals for the general public, including a K-pop concert, are in the works across 15 locations in Daejeon. To ensure the participation of local and regional governments from abroad, we’re sending out invitations and physically visiting their cities.
Have preparations been difficult with the pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic led to widespread disruption on many fronts, but it also forced us to take our virtual conference systems to the next level. In principle, the UCLG World Congress will be held in person this year, but participants in some sessions will be allowed to join virtually, in what we call the hybrid model.
Of all the programs you and your team at the Daejeon Metropolitan Government are preparing for the UCLG World Congress, what’s the top priority?
We want Daejeon residents to be a part of our 32 side events, such as the K-pop concert. There will be wonderful drone shows, media facades [light shows on the surface of buildings], a music fountain and various cultural performances, all of which will fill Daejeon with vitality this October. We’re also preparing a program titled Daejeon Track, in which participants will discuss ways to create a sustainable city as we prepare for life after the pandemic. There will also be a peace tour around the DMZ for VIP guests. We essentially want to show our guests that Daejeon is not just some small city in the middle of Korea. Daejeon is a city filled with culture, science and state-of-the-art technology.
Were there any other difficulties along the way?
There were many public relations obstacles due to the pandemic. After we were chosen as host of the next UCLG World Congress in 2019, we were supposed to focus all our resources on inviting overseas guests by physically going to their cities, but the coronavirus stymied our plans and we had to switch to online promotion. When our organizing committee was formed last year, we devised case-by-case scenarios depending on the severity of the spread of the virus. But across the world, as we see signs of transition from a pandemic to endemic, our organizing committee has settled on the in-person scenario and is preparing to hold this year’s UCLG World Congress face-to-face. We’re planning to crank up our efforts to invite foreign guests by attending various international conferences in the months leading up to the UCLG event. It would be good to have North Korea join, too.
Yes, North Korea is also a member of UCLG. We asked them to come to Daejeon for the UCLG meeting, but I heard they can’t make any physical contact [with outsiders] due to the pandemic. We’ll have to wait and see.
How do you think the UCLG World Congress will affect Daejeon?
It’s the biggest international conference we’re hosting since the Taejeon Expo ’93, and I think all Daejeon residents should be proud that this meaningful event is being held in our very own city. We must use this chance to promote Daejeon as a city of science and a city of peace, just as we introduced Daejeon to the world in 1993.
What hopes do you personally have for the UCLG World Congress?
It’s such an honor to serve as head of the organizing committee for such a significant event, where city leaders across the globe gather to discuss important issues. I hope many of our guests from abroad do find the time to come to Daejeon for the UCLG World Congress. I also hope that this meeting instills a sense of pride in our Daejeon citizens, and empowers our industry and culture. I would like to launch some sort of a new annual forum in Daejeon after the UCLG World Congress ends, but this idea, of course, will require a lot of effort.
Before we end the interview, let’s talk a bit about your ambition to create a “Daejeon-based megacity.”
We must create a megacity in the [Korea’s central] Chungcheong area that’s joined by Daejeon and other major local governments in South Chungcheong and North Chungcheong as Korea faces the imbalanced growth issue and the population crisis. If the local governments of Daejeon, Sejong, South Chungcheong and North Chungcheong join hands to create a single megacity, we’ll be able to gain as much competitiveness as the Seoul metropolitan area, see our population grow and ease the flow of migration to the Seoul metropolitan area, [the last of which] is a national task. Last year, Daejeon officially launched efforts to create this megacity by devising nine strategies across three key areas. This year, we’re thinking about creating an organization solely dedicated [to this ambition]. We also plan to discuss specific projects that need cooperation with the local governments of Sejong, South Chungcheong and North Chungcheong [in order to create this megacity], such as creating a special local government encompassing the entire Chungcheong region and establishing a Chungcheong local bank.
So your campaign to seek the designation of Daejeon and Sejong as a free economic zone is in line with the megacity ambition?
We’re laying the groundwork for Daejeon to be a core part of the megacity. Last September, Daejeon and Sejong agreed to officially kick off efforts to seek the designation of Daejeon and Sejong as a free economic zone on that hopes that it will pull both local economies together and spearhead Korea’s innovative growth. To this end, both cities held numerous working group meetings to discuss joint policy agenda items such as the need to foster new industries and attract companies [to the region]. We’re also discussing development plans for a potential Daejeon-Sejong free economic zone, and once we’re done with that process in June, we will try to [convince] the new [Yoon Suk-yeol] administration to adopt the plan as an official national project and submit application papers to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy within this year. As we push this megacity proposition, I hope to see Daejeon grow into an international hub that leads the nation’s MICE industry. If Sejong manages to solidify its stance as the administrative capital, Daejeon will be able to hold various international conferences hosted by Korea’s central government at our newly built Second Exhibition Hall of the Daejeon Convention Center and the Daejeon Science Complex.
Where is this megacity idea coming from?
Well, first, I suggested we combine Daejeon and Sejong. But it’s not that I want to combine both cities because Daejeon’s population is shrinking and Sejong’s is growing. It’s so that we can both grow. My plan is to essentially create a megacity with a population of 2 million by combining Daejeon’s social infrastructure with Sejong’s functions as [the nation’s] administrative capital. But this requires time. The first step to pull Daejeon, Sejong, South Chungcheong and North Chungcheong all together is transportation – basically making it easy to get around the region. There aren’t many success stories [in Korea] when it comes to free economic zones. However, I think the Chungcheong area has so much potential.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]