“We failed”: Yoon apologizes to nation for Busan expo bid letdown

Posted on : 2023-11-30 17:04 KST Modified on : 2023-11-30 17:04 KST
Korea put an immense amount of effort, and money, into the expo bid and stoked expectations of an underdog victory
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea addresses the nation from the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 29 after Busan failed to win its bid to host the 2030 World Expo. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea addresses the nation from the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 29 after Busan failed to win its bid to host the 2030 World Expo. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol made a public apology on Wednesday for Busan’s failed bid to host the 2030 World Expo.

“As the president who ultimately oversaw and bore responsibility for our World Expo bid, I am very sorry for having disappointed the citizens of Busan, as well as the rest of the nation,” Yoon said. “I’d like you to assume that everything was due to my own shortcomings.”

But critics say the huge disparity between the 119 votes claimed by Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and the measly 29 votes captured by Busan reveals the inadequacies of the government’s diplomatic and intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Yoon delivered his public address about the expo bid in the briefing room in the presidential office in Yongsan at noon on Wednesday.

“We launched a whole-of-government campaign to support Busan’s candidacy to host the 2030 World Expo, in partnership with the private sector, and energized by the passion not only of the citizens of Busan but of the entire Korean nation. And yet, we failed,” Yoon said.

Yoon’s swift apology came barely ten hours after receiving the news at 1:22 am of Busan’s loss to Riyadh in the first round of voting at a meeting of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) in Paris.

Riyadh had a 90-vote lead in the initial vote, clinching its selection as the host city without even going to a run-off. Rome came in third place with a mere 17 votes.

The lopsided defeat made a mockery of the government’s hopeful prediction that Busan could pull off an upset if it made it to a run-off vote with Riyadh. That overoptimistic prediction is sure to place the government’s diplomatic and intelligence-gathering resources under scrutiny.

“I held some 150 meetings with the leaders of 96 countries and made personal phone calls to the leaders of dozens of countries. Nevertheless, the impression we got of those countries’ positions during both public and private outreach appears to have seriously missed the mark,” Yoon said during his address to the public Wednesday.

“My failure to lead the project to a winning bid is due to my inadequacies as president,” Yoon said.

There had been fears the bid would fail, partly because Saudi Arabia, as a wealthy oil producer, had more capital to draw upon than Korea, and partly because Korea didn’t really start preparing for the bid until July 2022, just one year and four months before the vote, when it set up a bid committee under the prime minister’s office.

But Yoon had kindled hopes when he personally stood at the podium to deliver a presentation at a BIE meeting in Paris this past June. He also held some 60 bilateral meetings during the UN General Assembly in the US, the Group of 20 summit in India and the ASEAN summit in Indonesia, all in September.

President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea addresses the nation from the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 29 after Busan failed to win its bid to host the 2030 World Expo. (pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea addresses the nation from the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 29 after Busan failed to win its bid to host the 2030 World Expo. (pool photo)

“We’re thinking of asking Guinness World Records to register Yoon as the president who has held the most summits in a single month,” quipped an official at the presidential office.

Yoon kept up his campaign for Busan’s bid this month with appearances at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in the US, a state visit to the UK, and the BIE meeting in France.

Yoon had made the expo bid one of his chief goals as president, styling himself as the “supreme commander” of the campaign. But that only magnified the political fallout from a failed bid.

Korea put an immense amount of effort, and money, into the expo bid. This year, the government earmarked 322.8 billion won (US$250 million) for related programs aimed at gaining support, arranging overseas cooperation and building necessary infrastructure. That was a 28.3% increase over last year’s budget of 251.6 billion won.

The distance traveled by Yoon, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, SK Chairman Chey Tae-won (who headed up private sector efforts for Busan’s bid) and other corporate leaders during the 509 days after the bid committee was established totaled 19,891,579 kilometers, enough to circumnavigate the globe 495 times, the prime minister’s office related.

Until the very last moment, the government had been stoking expectations by talking about a come-from-behind victory. But that turned out to be a false hope that was disconnected from reality. In turn, that raises questions about whether the combined intelligence and diplomatic capabilities of the public and private sectors were put to proper use.

A source with the ruling People Power Party told the Hankyoreh that there was a lack of clear-eyed analysis of the bid’s chances. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which deals with member states on a regular basis, offered a conservative prediction about the voting results. But Yoon’s office of future strategy and planning, which was set up solely to promote Busan’s bid, was apparently producing positive-sounding reports,” the source said.

Lawmakers with opposition parties took issue with the diplomatic approach taken by Yoon, who has frequently traveled overseas to promote Busan’s expo bid. According to them, Yoon’s preoccupation with moving closer to the US and Japan kept him from seeing the big picture even as he campaigned for an event at which each country gets only one vote.

“If they totally failed to predict this outcome, we’re looking at off-the-charts incompetence. This was the catastrophic outcome of bragging about a Guinness World Records-level of pointless overseas trips,” said Democratic Party lawmaker Woo Won-shik in a post on social media.

“Only sweet nothings reach the ears of the ‘emperor with no clothes’ who has his eyes shut to reality. We can’t manage international relations with our current foreign policy,” said Kim Doo-kwan, another lawmaker with the Democratic Party.

“The diplomatic experience gleaned from this bid will be of great value going forward as Korea plays a role as a global pivotal state,” remarked Kim Gi-hyeon, the head of the ruling party, in a post on Facebook.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter; Sun Dam-eun, staff reporter; Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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