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Yeosu World Expo

Korea Takes the Spotlight with Yeosu Expo

UNITED NATIONS, May 31 2012 (IPS) - The Yeosu Expo 2012 exemplifies how the Republic of Korea (ROK) has made its debut on the world stage.

With one national, Ban Ki-moon, embarking on an uncontested second term as U.N. secretary general, Jim Kim Yong, a Korean American taking office in July as the new president of the World Bank, and a Korean President Judge Sang-Hyun Song of the International Criminal Court, the Expo shows the engagement of the Republic with the rest of the world.

The latter is especially significant: Seoul signed the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2000, when some sections of Washington were bitterly opposed, and Ban, then foreign minister, was forthright in his support for the court, even when running for the secretary general’s position with support from ICC-hating John Bolton as U.S. acting permanent representative.

The support for the ICC showed that Korea had emerged from the shadow of its neighbours. For years, its foreign policy outlook had been overshadowed by the U.S., China, Russia and North Korea – none of them friends of the ICC – and former occupier Japan.

Understandably, with such neighbours looming on all its horizons, South Korea found it difficult to rise above the event horizon to become an active member of the world community as befits its economic stature. It has certainly overcome that reticence now and its principled support for the ICC is emblematic.

In times past, Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom. And in their different ways, both North and South lived up to their reputation. Both halves ignored the advice of the Washington consensus, each conducting a real time experiment in methods of development, neither of them in the early years factoring much democracy into the equations. In this real time experiment, Seoul won hands-down.

The fall of the dictatorship in the South accelerated its economic development, and demonstrated to cheerleaders for so-called free-market authoritarian regimes like Pinochet’s Chile that democracy and civil rights were entirely compatible with, indeed possibly inextricable from,increasing growth and prosperity.

The South now is one of the world’s most highly developed countries, according to the UNDP Human Development Index, where its ranking is 15th – above most European countries. Most other indicators of GDP and economic rankings put it in that ballpark as well.

Indeed, the ROK has not only joined the developed world on most financial market indices, for the last 20 years it has had universal health care – making it in some ways more advanced the world’s biggest economy.

Ironically, the World Bank and the MSCI index still count South Korea as an “emerging market”, one almost suspects in revenge for the temerity of Seoul’s government and industry in pursuing its own route to development, but also because along with the other Asian Tigers, like Taiwan, they form such a large part of of MSCI’s emerging market index that their official emergence to developed market status would leave it without customers.

Interestingly, MSCI’s objections to Korea’s “emerged” status invoke some of the very reasons that South Korea has developed on the scale that it has. That is state direction and protection of sectors such as aviation, telecommunication, utilities which have limits on foreign ownership and alleged manipulation of the currency.

Rather than confront the “Washington Consensus” directly, however, Seoul tends to use the security situation with the North as the excuse for behaviour that until a few decades ago was regarded as entirely desirable and normal for developing governments.

With bitter memories of the conditions the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed during what the rest of the world called the Asian Currency Crisis, but in Korea is known as the IMF crisis, it is understandable that South Korea does not give full faith and credit to advice from the institution. Indeed, since the crisis it has more than tripled its GDP – in spite of the IMF conditions.

There are indeed issues with the Chaebols, the interlinked business groups that dominate Korean finance and industry. They do not make for the market “transparency” so beloved by Wall Street and the IMF, but more pertinently their stranglehold on the economy can work against the interests of consumers and workers alike.

However, the South Korean government and society have the means and willingness to tackle such issues.

Additionally, those companies have become major players in the world economy, 14 of them in the world’s top 500 companies. Nor have they grown in isolation, with Samsung for example, having the majority of its business, its employees and even its shareholders overseas.

Which brings us back to the Yeosu Expo, which draws together all these strands, domestic and foreign. Ignoring the neoliberal calls for austerity across the world, Seoul has put billions of tax dollars not only into the Expo, but also into a “stimulus” package for a region that had not totally shared the prosperity of the growing economy: infrastructure investment in roads, rail, airports and associated development not only brings a short term stimulus but lays the foundations for future growth and investment in the area.

The Expo aims to “Raise the status of marine science, the new frontier for science,” and the theme “The Living Ocean and Coast” is in keeping with the traditions and history of the region.

Korea’s shipbuilding industry, the world’s biggest, has now been joined by the offshore plant industry in terms of revenue, while Korean ports are ranked fifth and its shipping industry 10th in the world.

But one would be naive to expect corporations to voluntarily sacrifice profits for ecological reasons, so another emphasis of the Expo is the need for national and international regulation and standard setting on pollution and energy efficiency, which harmonises with Korea’s attested support for global governance, whether from the U.N., the ICJ or the International Law of the Sea.

Add to that Seoul’s promotion from being a recipient of OECD aid to being a donor: in connection with Yeosu, it is stepping up its overseas development aid, targetting environmental projects above all.

The Expo does mean South Korea is joining the world with a symbolic splash.

*Ian Williams is a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus, and columnist, Tribune.

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