Seoul Has No Time to Dwell on Failed Busan Expo Bid
from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

Seoul Has No Time to Dwell on Failed Busan Expo Bid

Despite the setback in the 2030 World Expo bid, South Korea must maintain its focus on revitalizing Busan to enhance the city’s chances in a potential 2035 bid.
South Korean supporters of Busan's candidacy gather outside the Palais des Congres as BIE Member States gather to elect the host country of the World Expo 2030 on November 28, 2023.
South Korean supporters of Busan's candidacy gather outside the Palais des Congres as BIE Member States gather to elect the host country of the World Expo 2030 on November 28, 2023. (Manuel Ausloos/Reuters)

South Korea’s cherished dream came to an end. On November 28, the member states of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), responsible for organizing the World Exposition, selected Riyadh in Saudi Arabia over Busan in South Korea as the host city for the 2030 World Expo. In a three-cornered contest between Riyadh, Busan, and Rome, Riyadh emerged as the clear winner with 119 votes, far surpassing Busan, which garnered only 29 votes. This marked a significant voting disparity, forcing Seoul to concede defeat despite its vigorous and sustained campaign to secure the hosting rights. 

Local Disappointment and Political Consequences Following the Expo Vote 

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Yoon Suk Yeol

The prospect of hosting the World Expo resonated deeply with many in South Korea, particularly those in Busan, where the event would have been held. On the day of the vote, thousands gathered at the Busan Citizens Hall, eagerly listening to presentations by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Busan Mayor Park Hyeong-joon, and Busan Expo Public Relations Ambassador Na Seung-yeon. This enthusiastic support quickly gave way to a somber silence, with some attendees moved to tears. Their disappointment was twofold: the dashed hopes for revitalizing Busan’s regional economy and disillusionment from previously optimistic assurances by Expo officials about having a solid chance in the competition.  

The sentiment appears to be widely shared among Busan’s citizens, as evidenced by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s waning popularity in the region. Recent Gallup poll results show that 55 percent of respondents from Busan disapprove of his administration, a figure close to the national disapproval rate of 59 percent, which is notable given the city’s typically right-leaning political inclination. The failure to secure the Expo hosting rights is cited as one of the reasons for this dissatisfaction. Correspondingly, a Real Meter poll reported a 3 percent drop in Yoon’s approval rating specifically in the Busan and South Gyeongsang region. Considering the recent nature of the failed bid and its full impact only beginning to manifest in polls, the Yoon administration and the ruling party should focus on mitigating the potential political repercussions as they gear up for the upcoming legislative election in April.  

Parties Remain Split in Assessing the Failure 

Acknowledging the potential impact of local sentiment on the upcoming April legislative election results, both political parties have initiated efforts to sway Busan residents in the wake of the World Expo bid failure. In a significant move, President Yoon visited Busan on December 6, accompanied by prominent business leaders such as Samsung Electronics Executive Chairman Lee Jae-yong and LG Chairman Koo Kwang-mo. During this visit, he assured the citizens of Busan that investments in the city would proceed regardless of the World Expo bid’s outcome, and expressed gratitude to local civic groups for their support and commitment to the city’s development. 

The ruling party has framed the failure as a valuable diplomatic learning experience that will aid South Korea’s growth into a ‘global pivotal state.’ In defending the current government, they shifted the blame to the previous Moon Jae-in administration, accusing it of insufficient promotional efforts and neglecting crucial regional initiatives in Busan. Busan Mayor Park, who is affiliated with the PPP, agreed by stating that the most significant error was the previous administration’s delayed start in promotional activities, which began a year later than competitors despite initiating the Expo bid.  

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Yoon Suk Yeol

Conversely, the opposition Democratic Party (DP) has intensified its criticism of the government for the diplomatic shortcoming, possibly aiming to use this issue as a campaign theme for the upcoming election. On December 13, the DP convened an urgent session of the soon-to-be-dissolved Special Committee for Preparation of World Exposition at the National Assembly. This session was marked by the DP’s pointed criticism of the government’s handling of the Expo bid and calls for greater accountability. However, the meeting’s effectiveness was questioned as members from the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and Expo personnel chose not to attend, raising doubts about the session’s objectives. In response, the DP members urged the administration and Busan’s mayor to accept responsibility and hinted at the possibility of initiating an investigation related to the government’s actions if the ruling party continued its non-participation.  

On the same day as the committee session, opposition leader Lee Jae-myung visited Busan to extend condolences to the residents affected by the failed Expo bid and pledge support for key regional projects, including the Gadeok Island airport initiative and the North Port redevelopment project. With the DP currently holding only three out of eighteen seats in the region from the previous legislative elections, this move appears to be an effort to capitalize on the unsettled atmosphere in Busan following the bid failure, potentially turning the situation to the DP’s advantage. 

Fulfilling Regional Promises Is Key to Future Bid Success  

President Yoon’s national address following the bid’s failure garnered significant attention within South Korea. In his speech, he apologized for the outcome and reaffirmed his commitment to fulfilling promises, such as the construction of the Gadeok Island airport, made during the bid process. Yoon attributed the failure to his lack of effective leadership, expressing gratitude to those who supported the effort. Concurrently, both the Yoon government and the city of Busan are indicating their readiness to pursue a bid for the 2035 World Exposition. Mayor Park expressed his willingness to formalize Busan’s candidacy for the 2035 World Expo, pending discussions with the government and the citizens of Busan.  

Certainly, South Korea could make another attempt to secure the World Exposition. However, if they choose to pursue this path again, it will be crucial to approach it with the right strategy. The first and foremost task for them is to fulfill the promised regional initiatives as they prepare for the next bid. Demonstrating a government that is committed to keeping its promises can significantly aid South Korea in securing more global support. This approach is also crucial for South Korea’s decentralization policy aimed at combating rural decline, a persistent issue in its economy. Busan, despite being the second-largest city in the country, faces economic challenges largely due to a brain drain as young adults leave in search of opportunities elsewhere. 

Revitalizing Busan as a dynamic regional trade center requires actionable steps, such as breaking the longstanding deadlock over the Gadeok Island Airport and redeveloping the North Port into an economic and cultural hub. While both political parties and the government concur on strategies for Busan’s redevelopment, their commitments should not merely serve as vote-catching tactics for the upcoming legislative elections in this swing city. Instead, these should be sincere promises, the sincerity of which will be judged by tangible outcomes. Ultimately, the transformed version of Busan will emerge as a more competitive and attractive candidate for international events than it was previously. 

Moreover, the promotional approach to the 2030 bid was heavily reliant on Korean celebrities like PSY and BTS and fell short in securing substantial voting support, failing to resonate with both international and domestic audiences. The promotional video, shown before the vote at the BIE meeting, featured these celebrities who lacked a direct connection to Busan. This choice was met with criticism, even from right-leaning domestic commentators, for being outdated and irrelevant to the unique qualities of the host city. A deep appreciation and understanding of Busan’s historical significance and its socioeconomic potential are vital for the success of future bid.  

Interestingly, this is not the first time that South Korea would be making a renewed attempt to host an international event after an initial failure. The country’s successful bid to host the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, achieved after previous attempts for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics fell short, serves as a valuable lesson. The victory in Pyeongchang was not just a stroke of luck, but the culmination of diligent preparation and strategic refinement following earlier disappointments. This experience underscores the potential for South Korea to make significant steps in its upcoming endeavor, provided that it leverages a more sophisticated host city profile and an enhanced promotional strategy. 

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Jinwan Park is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an incoming Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, China. His experience includes roles at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the U.S. Consulate in Busan, the UW Center for East Asian Studies, and a summer 2023 intern in Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.