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     Apr 18, 2012

Yeosu to makes waves with expo
By Ian Williams

If you go down to the South Korean port city of Yeosu this May, you are in for a big surprise, not least of which is being greeted by Yeony and Suny, the human size blue and orange cartoon plankton that are official mascots for the 2012 World Expo, which runs from May 12 to August 12. And you will be one out of 10 million visitors to get the treatment.

Until recently, South Korea had little political presence globally, but it is now delivering an impressive overture on the world stage. In addition to providing a United Nations secretary general (Ban ki-moon), a president of the International Criminal Court (Sang-Hyun Song) and now the head the World Bank (Jim Yong Kim), part of its effort to make global splash is the Expo in Yeosu, in Korea’s deep south.

The big theme of the first Expo, the 1851 Great Exhibition in


London, was the steam engine and it was at the 1885 Antwerp Exposition that the automobile was introduced to an all too ready world. A major theme of Yeosu is how to cope with the damage to the seas and coastlines threatened by the collective addiction to burning carbon based fuels unleashed at those events.

However, unlike the rustbelt tourist showcases of Britain and America that look back to history, the Yeosu Expo looks firmly to the future, showcasing technologies and methods that will keep the oceans and the planet thriving. It claims that it should "Raise the status of marine science, the new frontier for science". But the foundation on which they are building, the theme "The Living Ocean and Coast" is in keeping with the traditions and history of the region.

It took 250 years after the industrial revolution for Britain's industrial areas to be museified. Former factory workers and miners or their children earned a living by acting out the roles that they used to have. In Yeosu, it has only taken a generation!

The city's port area, a former brownfield site of cement silos and petrochemical plants has been revived as the site of the expo, with some impressive architecture and even more impressive technology. The old cement silos have been recycled as the 55-meter high "Sky Towers" with one being used to demonstrate desalination techniques and the two incorporated into the world's loudest pipe organ (certified by the Guinness Book of Records), whose strains will inspire the millions of visitors expected to throng at the site.

The Theme Pavilion looks better than one would guess from hearing that it is modelled on a lugworm - but then how much more maritime can you get? Most of the world, looking at South Korea from afar, see only the broad brushstrokes of the peninsula, but off Yeosu city, whose name apparently means "beautiful water", is an archipelago of 365 strikingly beautiful islands, one for each day of the year.

The islands are functional as well as aesthetic: they shelter the harbor from storms and waves. The waters in the region have been cleaned up, reviving the traditional seafood industry whose products fill the local markets with their salty variety and also allowing use of tourist beaches on the many inlets and islands of the coast.

Yeosu, an opposition stronghold, had run down under the earlier conservative governments, but the impending exposition has focused spending and investment on the region and one of its explicit purposes is to be "A driving force to develop the south coast," creating 80,000 new jobs. The anticipated growth will come from high-tech marine industries and what is sometimes claimed to be the world's biggest and fastest growing business - tourism.

While the expo site itself has taken 1.5 trillion won (US$1.31 billion) in investment, the associated infrastructure spending has absorbed over 10 trillion won. The better roads and the high-speed train that ushers passengers from Seoul to the expo site in Yeosu in less than three hours are permanent contributions to regional development.

And they will come, by all accounts, from across the world. By trains, boats and planes. Part of the site is a liner terminal for passenger ships to dock for the expo, and, the town hopes, to be a regular stop for cruises at the port which offers a location that is not only scenic, but pivotal on the routes from Japan and Shanghai.

The plan is that, as well as being a big attraction in its own right, that the exposure and development of the region will initiate a future as a tourist resort. Clearly the eyes of local business are on the Chinese market, with half a million of the 10 million visitors expected from China.

The other attractions of the region are also preparing for the influx of visitors during the expo and in what they hope is the continuing tourist trade afterwards. The Korea Tea Museum and the surrounding Boseang green tea gardens, Suncheon Bay Ecological Park, Odong do island and the Hyangiram Hermitage are all boosting their attractions. However, foreign visitors should be warned, Korean tourists seem to like and expect a lot of healthy hiking up steep hills. For two hours around new hotels are being built and old ones refurbished. Even temples and churches are being pressed into service

While some of the structures for the exhibition will be temporary, the more spectacular edifices will remain, like the Big O, "The largest over the sea fountain," which does with water what pyrotechnics does with fireworks. Fireworks themselves will be absent to minimize pollution - their place being taken by water jets and state of the art laser displays.

In addition to the spectacular water displays, the curtain of water can act as a screen for movies and holograms. In the flood of superlatives, the aquarium's 6,000-ton tank will stand out for some time, and for those who like to stay dry while watching whales swim overhead, the Expo Digital Gallery boasts a 218-by-30 meter LED screen across its roof.

The quaintly named MLV (More Valuable Life) Hotel, a spectacular looking piece of architecture in its own right, has just opened its 1,800 rooms to cope with the demand - which of course it hopes will continue after the official expo closes.

Over a hundred countries such as China, Japan, Russia, Spain, France and the United States have booked displays in the 73 pavilions at the expo - Britain being a notable exception - Prime Minister David Cameron pleaded the pressure of a rival attraction, the Summer Olympic Games in London this year.

South Korea has built seven "theme" pavilions, which will showcase climate and environment, marine industry and technology, marine civilization and city, including a putative underwater city, and marine life. In line with the greening of the blue theme, organizers claim that the Korea pavilion itself is built from "carbon neutral eco-friendly materials" while the site is festooned with windmills and solar panels and backed up with thermal power from the ocean.

The United Nations is hosting themed events from some two dozen agencies in the international hall. Yeosu is not in isolation. It is part of the road to - and from - Rio, the major environmental conference in Brazil in June and at the closure, attended by Ban Ki-moon, most participant countries will sign the Yeosu Declaration, a comprehensive pledge to maintain and improve the conditions of the world's oceans and coasts.

Between sea level rise, which would swamp the site, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch gyrating over the horizon past the now-pristine waters of South Korea's south coast Yeosu clearly has a civic stake in persuading the rest of the world to look after the 70% of the world already under water - only 1% of which, points out Sam Koo, the UN director for the expo, is legally protected.

Between Rio and Yeosu there might be hope yet of averting the threatened sea level rise - but in the meantime, the floods of investment should help float the economy of Korea's south coast.

Ian Williams is author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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