The Yeosu expo has been receiving a great deal of attention from the Korean media, much of which has focused on the massive amount of money which has poured into the creation of this project. It has been reported that the equivalent of 1.4 billion euros has being spent in constructing and organizing the expo. Korean authorities, perhaps learning from previous money squandering ventures have insisted it is money well spent and it will generate billions more. These claims are yet to be proven, what is known now, however, is that for some countries, such as Canada, participation has proven too expensive.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I spent five hours on a bus from Seoul to Yeosu to find out what all the fuss was about. Arriving in the morning, before the crowds had started to pour in, I headed through the security check points with everything in my pockets setting off the security alarms. As with many of my encounters with security in Korea, however, it was mostly for show and the security women waved me through with a smile and a bow.
Along with the group I had traveled down with, I made my way to the high ground closest the entrance for a better view of the expo. Surprise and confusion would be the words I would use to describe my first glimpse of the expo. From the news reports and the brochures I had been led to believe that this was an event created in harmony with the natural environment, “a symbol of the harmonious existence of human beings and the ocean”, according to Kang Dong-suk, Chairman of the Yeosu Expo 2012 organizing committee. Yet, as I cast my eye over the many buildings that stretched from the soft rolling mountains guarding the bay area of Yeosu to the ocean’s edge I saw only cumbersome attempts at futuristic architecture, colossal cement creations and the shining lights of Samsung, LG, Posco, GS group and a multitude of other Korean Chaebol brands clamoring for attention. Where was the harmony? Where was focus on the nature and beauty of this part of Korea? It seemed to have been swept away under the wheels of big Korean business, engulfed in the neon lights of the Hyundai group building, trampled underfoot of the Dunkin Doughnuts and Angel-in-us coffee shops that dotted the grounds.
Not wanting to believe that the expo could have failed to achieve it primary goal I decided to hold judgment until I had had a chance to look around more.
The day was spent walking hither and thither with my group, we stumbled from one country’s booth/show to another, walked from the “Big-O”- an object which already appears aged and out of place perched above the water at the heart of the expo grounds- to the Marine Industry and Technology pavilion and back again. The first stop after lunch was the aquarium, which despite high hopes, proved to be equally as underwhelming, the Koreans in my group commenting that, “It was ok, just ok”.
It then occurred to me what this is. I had been approaching this event as if it were designed for the everyday person. There were indicators that this was indeed the case, as there is outdoor entertainment, food, snacks, soft drink and alcohol stands throughout the expo. However, a full day of walking in circles, visiting this show and that, helped me to figure out that this is about business -big business. As our group walked down the road, flanked by the biggest players in Korean industry, it became clear that this was an expose of what the crème de la crème of Korea has to offer as a place for foreign investment to throw their money. Sure, there are places to eat and drink, American and Korean chain stores are everywhere, but what marks this expo is not the same fast food we can eat anywhere in Korea, rather the giant spaces colonized from nature for the purpose of tempting foreign capital. Fair enough, I thought. I just wished I had known this before I decided to travel ten hours here and back again to see SK Telecom and GS compete with each other for the title of most energy used to light up their giant logos.
Once I had realized what was going on, and decided that I would never figure out what the point had been of spending billions on this event, I decided to focus on some of the highlights of the expo: Definitely the football playing and dancing robots would rank among the most popular of pavilions. Following this, the French space should also be given a mention, exhibiting fantastic imagination in its pavilion design, displaying music playing robots, swimming fish robots and wonderful lighting. The Sky Tower was also a building worth a visit. This was once a storage silo and after being converted into an observatory tower and massive organ from which music periodically floats, it was the perfect spot from which to look out across the expo and beyond.
The International Exposition Yeosu Korea 2012 cost a fortune to create and quite frankly I hope that people will ask two questions: where this money went and what will happen to this site in the future. In terms of showcasing the biggest and brightest of Korean industry and technology, the expo lives up to the task. Considering the time we spent to travel to Yeosu and the hype we had been subjected to through the media, however, it was a disappointment. One day, I hope those who write the checks in Korea will realize that there are so many interesting things in their country, so many great things that could be shown to the world, things that do not require a massive amount of land and sea be turned into a fun park for foreign currency.