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Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon with BTS member Jungkook. Photo: Handout

Can BTS, Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae help South Korea edge out Saudi Arabia to host the 2030 World Expo?

  • Busan is one of four cities, along with Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh, Rome, and Odesa in war-torn Ukraine vying to host the 2030 world fair
  • The city’s mayor Park Heong-joon said in an interview that his campaign team was ready to tap on expertise from Shanghai, which hosted the 2010 World Expo
South Korea
K-pop boy band BTS may be on a break to pursue solo projects, but South Korea is hoping the seven pop stars will nonetheless be doing some heavy lifting for the country as it bids to host the 2030 World Expo.

South Korea’s second largest city, the southeastern seaside metropolis of Busan, is among four contenders hoping to host the 2030 world fair.

The planet’s major cities have long prized World Expo hosting rights, where avant-garde inventions of the time such as the sewing machine, the lawnmower and the first vehicle running on oil have been introduced.

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Governments tend to spare no expense when it comes to hosting. The 2010 Shanghai World Expo, for instance, reportedly cost a staggering US$40 billion.

Dubai last year spent an eye watering US$7 billion for a fair that was held on a desert site the size of 600 football fields. That event, delayed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will be followed by the Osaka World Expo in 2025.
Other bidders for the 2030 edition include the Italian capital Rome, and war-torn Ukraine’s Odesa – but most observers say the front runner is the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.
BTS performing at the Grammy Awards in April. The K-pop act are ambassadors for South Korea’s 2030 World Expo bid. Photo: AP
The kingdom last year signalled it hoped the hosting of the six-month-long world fair will serve as a culmination of its plans to diversify the economy away from oil. The kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the event would “represent an extraordinary opportunity to share with the world our lessons from this unprecedented transformation”.

In Busan, however, authorities are saying – not so fast.

In an interview with This Week in Asia, Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon said his ambition was for the world fair to serve as a platform to showcase the city’s emergence as “another global hub just like Singapore or Hong Kong”.
Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon at a ceremony appointing honorary ambassadors for the World Expo 2030 Busan, Korea. Photo: Busan Metropolitan City

Park, a former sociology professor, has been spearheading Busan’s campaign which has included making presentations before the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the World Expo’s 170-nation organising body.

Member states will decide the winner in November 2023.

Hosting world fairs have traditionally offered a degree of prestige rivalled only by the Olympics or World Cup.

Park said Busan’s bid took into account the fact that the World Expo remained the one major event South Korea had not yet held.

It played host to the World Cup in 2002 after winning a joint bid with Japan, and was the host of the 1988 Summer Olympics and most recently the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

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Park, seen as an important figure within President Yoon Suk-yeol’s People Power Party, refrained from talking about rival bids but said he was confident that a simultaneous “ground up” and “top down” strategy would help garner support.

A large part of his city’s campaign is leveraging the influence of Korean pop culture, Park said.

Getting BTS to come on board as ambassadors for the campaign was “really important”, Park said.

The K-pop group – though on hiatus – will hold a concert in Busan in October to support the bid, with Park saying in another media interview that “500,000 to 600,000” people were expected to watch the live-streamed event.
Lee Jung-jae, known for his role in Squid Game is among a group of well-known South Koreans that have been asked to be ambassadors for Busan, South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo. Photo: AFP
Apart from BTS, actor Lee Jung-jae from Squid Game and globally renowned soprano singer Sumi Jo, are also ambassadors for the bid.

South Korea’s diplomats meanwhile are expected to kick into high gear with lobbying efforts in the coming months. Rival bidder Riyadh has reportedly garnered the support of some 70 countries, according to local media.

While This Week in Asia understands that much of the support for Riyadh is from the Muslim world, the likes of France have also openly voiced for the oil-rich kingdom’s bid.

Park, in the interview, said the government was sending special delegations to multiple regions including the Pacific islands, Southeast Asia, Central Asia as well as Latin America.

Park noted that the Chinese consul-general in Busan, Guo Peng, had “expressed his active support” for Busan’s bid.
“I expect that more Asian countries will express their support for our expo bid in the months ahead,” he said. Asked if his campaign team would be tapping on expertise from the organisers of the 2010 expo, Park said that was on the cards. Shanghai is one of Busan’s 26 “sister cities”.
Oceanix City is a floating city project consisting of concepts like ocean farming. Photo: Handout

For Asia in general, the Busan mayor added that his city’s hopes to host the world fair represented an opportunity for regional cooperation.

The floating city plan that Busan is working on with developer Oceanix and UN-Habitat, for instance, was one of the sustainable development projects the city is hoping to profile and garner international support for, Park said. Made up of interconnected platforms, the US$200 million project will cover an area of 15.5 acres and will be able to accommodate 12,000 people. The company’s website said the floating metropolis can produce its own energy, water, and food.

The project is seen as a test bed for one of the long-term solutions to deal with rising sea levels that experts say is likely to put some 40 per cent of humanity at risk.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg