South Korea: an Emerging Power Rises from a Cold War and Division

By IndepthAfrica
In Asia
Apr 9th, 2012


Between Japan, still reeling financially and psychologically from the 2011 triple whammy of a mega-quake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown, and China, which is increasingly feeling middle class discontent arising from the global economic super-recession, lies what is becoming more apparent as a financially-stable and wealthy South Korea. With new-found economic clout and an increasing pride in “Brand Korea,” South Korea – the Republic of Korea — is also beginning to flex its political muscles on the world stage.

South Korea has traditionally been seen as a nation totally dependent on the United States for its defense against the de facto hereditary monarchy of North Korea, a hermit nation that has been resistant for historical and political reasons to become part of the globalist construct. However, thanks to a burgeoning industrial base, South Korea is spreading its own wings and establishing itself as an important hub for trans-Asian and trans-Pacific commerce.

Not only has South Korea recently hosted in Seoul the second-ever international summit on nuclear security, but this summer it will host an international exhibition, commonly known as a “World’s Fair,” in the southern coastal city of Yeosu.

Even in an era when the world has become smaller as a result of globalization, the Internet, and social networking technology, nations are still lured by the chance to host international exhibitions. For the city of Yeosu, the chance to host a world Expo saw success when, in 2007, the Bureau of International Exhibitions in Paris selected the medium-sized city of 300,000 to host Expo 2012. The theme for the Expo is the ocean environment and the goal is to highlight ways to protect the ocean and other valuable and rapidly-diminishing water resources. With the south coast of Korea having one of five of the world’s most important mud flats/wetlands environments, the theme is supported by local and national government officials. Of course, South Korean companies are also eager to demonstrate to the world that they possess the technology required to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, water shortages in arid environments, and an increasing need for desalinization plants in countries that have diminishing fresh water resources for growing populations.

Two restored former cement silos on the Yeosu waterfront will house an exhibition and a fully-operational seawater desalinization plant.

Expo 2012’s soon-to-be iconic “Big O” symbol, which will remain long after the expo closes on August 12, symbolizes the ocean. It will join other icons left over from past Expos, including Centennial Hall in Philadelphia; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Atomium in Brussels; the Seattle Space Needle; and the Unisphere in New York City. Some have likened the Big “O” to the Stargate featured in the science fiction film and TV series with the same name. The Big “O” features a computerized laser and water screen display, and which was constructed at a cost of $70 million.

The Expo itself has cost $1.9 billion and the entire infrastructure costs, including the Expo. Improved highways and transportation systems, including a high-speed train from Seoul to Yeosu, are estimated to have cost $12 billion, well worth the cost to South Korean officials who see Yeosu, an ancient sea trading city between China and Japan, having the potential to return to its past glory as an important trading hub between two major Asian economies.

Yeosu Expo 2012 officials, citing the non-political aspects of world expositions, officially invited North Korea — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — to the event. As of this date, there has been no response from North Korea. However, the admission of the gesture to the North from the South came a few days before world leaders gathered in Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit, one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “boutique” global issues: countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, a recent thaw in U.S.-North Korean relations was offset by the announcement that North Korea will launch a rocket on April 15 to mark the centennial of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. The government of his grandson, Kim Jong Un, who has been leader of North Korea since last September when his father, Kim Jong Il, died, hammered out an agreement that saw the U.S. willing to provide food staples to Pyongyang in return for a North Korean moratorium on missile tests and nuclear development. North Korea agreed to put in place a moratorium on its nuclear weapons program but the decision to launch the rocket has deep-sixed the agreement.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s government responded to the North’s rocket launch announcement by requesting that Obama lift part of a 32 year-old pact between South Korea and the United States that limits South Korean missiles to a range of 300 kilometers. During his visit to South Korea, Obama is paid his first visit to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

While South Korea’s economy is booming, the world’s financial crisis has affected international participation at the Yeosu Expo. For example. Spain’s pavilion suffered budget cuts of a few million dollars arising from its government’s drastic austerity program.

Expo officials set a target of attracting 100 countries to exhibit at Expo 2012. Expo officials have met and exceeded that goal with 106 nations scheduled to participate. Expo officials say that 99 percent of the 106 nations that agreed to participate will have pavilions in Yeosu.

Owing to budget problems in Washington, the U.S. pavilions at Expos are not as grandiose as they once were. The U.S. pavilion in Yeosu will feature a water screen and an audio-visual presentation about the beauty of America’s coastline. It is doubtful anything will be featured showing the oil and tar blobs and patches that devastated the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil rig blowout.

Wealthy oil nations, like Brunei and Saudi Arabia, will be on hand. At Yeosu others, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, although poor and threatened by rising sea levels, will be represented with assistance granted by the Korea International Cooperation Agency.

A few countries declined to take part for different reasons. The government of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was the first African nation to sign up for Expo 2012, but Qaddafi’s ouster by NATO-supported rebels left Libya’s participation in great doubt. Libya, under Qaddafi, had pioneered in creating a water delivery and irrigation system, the “Great Man Made River,” which transported fresh water from Saharan aquifers to water-scarce coastal cities. That entire Libyan water system and its availability to the Libyan public is in jeopardy with fratricidal Libyan rebels in charge of Tripoli and Benghazi and damage to the water system suffered from the NATO attack.

Expo officials were disappointed that British Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter to Expo organizers that stated Britain declined to participate because the Expo overlaps with the 2012 London Summer Olympics. However, it is austerity that forced some nations, including those with long seafaring traditions, to decline participation in Expo 2012. Chief among these was Greece, which turned down its invitation due to severe budget cuts. Portugal and Ireland similarly declined to take part in the exposition.

Even with diminishing national budgets, the Yeosu Expo will offer true “World’s Fair”-style attractions, including a huge aquarium, featuring belugas from Russia and other rare marine species, and a terrarium. Russia’s pavilion will expose visitors to the cold of the Russian Arctic winter in the middle of South Korea’s hottest months. However, it is South Korea’s high-technology prowess that will most be on display at Yeosu. In this context, it should be emphasized that President Lee is a former chief executive officer of the giant Hyundai corporation.

With over 350 islands on South Korea’s mountainous southern coast, Expo administrators and local governments are hoping that Expo visitors to take a look at the other attractions of the region, which is fast becoming a location for retirees from Seoul, the capital, who seek a relatively warmer climate and more traditional Korean. For international investors, southern coastal officials are keen to advertise the entire South Korean south coast as a center for one of Asia’s largest seafood industries.

In today’s world of projecting “soft power,” the hosting of Olympics, World Cups, Expos, and summits are seen as a non-military method to project national power at regional and global levels. If the Yeosu 2012, the Nuclear Security Summit, and next year’s Asian Games are any indication, South Korea is intent on establishing itself as an Asian and international power to be reckoned with.

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