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[Column] An Aspiring City Becoming

Beyond the Expo Column


MICHAEL PAUL BÉGIN studied geography at the State University of New York at Geneseo and holds a doctoral degree in the same from the University of Kentucky.  A dual national of USA and Canada, Michael has made Busan his permanent home. 

When we were kids, nothing motivated me and my sister more than a few simple words from Mom or Dad: ‘we’re having company.’ With the news that we would soon be honored with a visit from friends, neighbors or relatives, our family would then spend the next hours or perhaps days busying ourselves with the requisite preparations in the interest of putting our best foot forward for the occasion. This entailed the usual frantic cleaning, decorating and/or yard work in order to get the family home in its most presentable condition, be it for the holidays or just a weekend gathering. Multiple trips to the market were sometimes necessary when preliminary shopping lists proved incomplete: insufficient quantities of snacks or soda; mom needs butter for her homemade dessert recipes; the upstairs bathroom is short on toilet paper. You know the drill, because almost every family entertains at least once in a while.  Letting outsiders in has a way of keeping us on our toes, alive with the anticipation of another chance to remind ourselves that having something, such as a newly-renovated kitchen or a lovely backyard flower garden, is more meaningful and appreciated when shared.

Living in Busan this past year has been very reminiscent of this experience. Like a family getting ready for guests arriving from a distant place, this ambitious city has been engaged in a high-gear mobilization to essentially gift-wrap Busan like a Christmas present. The prospect of hosting the 2030 World Expo has infused the city with purpose and unified it with a common goal. This is our home; we’re proud of it; we’re ready to welcome the world in the spirit of openness, hospitality and mutual benefit.

Just walk around the city and see for yourself. The amazing and wonderful Busan Citizen’s Park has been resplendent with festivals, elaborate floral displays, and cultural events all year long.  The city’s many subway and elevated rail stations feature new comforts, conveniences and aesthetic enhancements that many native locals have never seen before. The Busan Fireworks Festival this year pulled out all the stops and delivered a stunning and unforgettable display that dwarfed those of previous years, setting a whole new standard. The 2023 Busan Film Festival attracted artists, directors and cinephiles from all over the country and the world for yet another successful gathering in Centum City. Shopping and entertainment districts, such as those at Nampo-dong and Seomyeon, continually offer new experiences and special events, such as the Jeonpo Coffee Festival, and are especially fun around the holidays when these areas are thoroughly and properly festooned.

There’s more. Head to the vibrant and popular Gwangan Beach area every Saturday evening for a stunning, colorfully-coordinated drone display featuring a different ‘K-Culture’ theme every week. Enjoy a delicious and inexpensive bowl of seafood noodles at Haeundae Market before a leisurely nighttime stroll along the scenic beachfront, now featuring a variety of inspired, artful displays of creative illumination intended to enhance the experience. Take the new Coastal Trolley for some excellent ocean views on your way to Songjeong Beach, with stops along the way to enjoy a host of dessert cafes, boutiques, restaurants and drinking places. The very long list continues.

Living in a city with such outsized Expo ambitions has been instructive. The experience provides ample evidence to suggest that individual efforts toward success and prosperity can simultaneously operate on a more collective level of benefit; private interests cooperate in synergy with municipal, regional and national policy directives that create the win-win scenarios that encourage participation, growth and investment.  In this sense, Busan is still very much aligned with the ideals and values of the World Expo as a vehicle for showcasing social, industrial and technological innovation.

In a nutshell, it’s really about embracing change rather than resisting it. Cities become fossilized when their policies and people are neither open nor interested in the kind of adaptation and preparation such events call for. The exploration of new approaches and methods brings new opportunities and new solutions to complex problems. In this, Busan shows a great deal of promise in its ongoing process of ‘becoming.’

To illustrate: Busan is becoming a more cosmopolitan city -- a worthy goal for a variety of reasons. First, the unavoidable internationalization of its labor force takes on a very positive and hopeful veneer in this context. Busan also becomes a more attractive place for foreign talents to study, train and perhaps settle down here, making valuable contributions across their productive years. In the future,  floating eco-cities and marine taxi services, hosting the Expo would give the city a much-needed regional boost in order to smooth out the country’s development gradient, given the substantial economic dominance of the capital region.

Busan is also becoming a highly communicative, diplomatic city with a global reach. As both a vital port city and financial hub, it’s an ideal location for hosting international meetings and summit events such as the recent Korea-Japan-China trilateral talks and the ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit of 2019. From BEXCO to the Cinema Center to the APEC House, Busan possesses the high-quality infrastructure and attractive facilities for hosting international trade group meetings, prestigious professional conferences, and high-volume cultural events. Its coastal location, pleasant climate, and talented, energetic people further support the claim that Busan is still well-situated as an excellent choice for the World Expo.

Prospects for hosting the Expo also have Busan exploring new connectivities that can only bring benefit to the region. The New Gadeok International Airport, to be constructed on land reclaimed from the sea and completed by December 2029, will bring new opportunities for communication with other regions and places that only a KTX ticket to Incheon could previously offer. Such ambitious transport linkages are mirrored in other smaller-scale, yet important projects such as the recent opening of the new Choeup-Mandeok tunnel, reducing the commute between the two areas from approximately thirty to less than ten minutes. It’s another reason for Busan to celebrate its ‘becoming,’ to be sure.

In sum, the Expo project signals a kind of arrival not only for Busan, but for the entire country. The global message is loud and clear: Korea is here and it’s indispensable. It is highly motivated, participatory and prepared to invite the world to its doorstep.  The extensive promotional efforts involved in elevating Busan as a viable and willing candidate for World Expo 2030 have brought an enviable pride of purpose that surpasses the perennial, business-as-usual organizing ethic of many other metropolitan areas of the world. Busan is already a better place now because it has demonstrated its willingness to compete, strive, and show what it’s capable of. Indeed, the enhanced visibility that Busan now enjoys as a leading Expo candidate is a game changer: it puts the city on a yellow brick road that nurtures future connections and opportunities, with prodigious rewards that cannot yet be measured.

Back at the family home in New York, it’s the end of the 1982 Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Our illustrious guests have gone home happy. Uncle Bob was gifted a bottle of his favorite wine; Cousin Eric had fun getting on my nerves; Auntie Anne wants us to return the visit next summer when her daylilies are in bloom.  We are exhausted but also happy, and everyone had a good time. When we do this again, we know we’ll have another chance to tidy up properly, stock up on ginger ale and mixed nuts, and we’ll be better off for the experience of having shared our home with those who are already looking forward to coming back. 

Cheers, Busan. We’re off the hook for now, but the 2030 World Expo campaign amounted to so much more than simple window dressing.