South Korea pins hopes on G-20 summit

Polishing a pair of black men’s dress shoes, Ji Soon-dol said he was honored to take an economic hit for the sake of his country.

In preparation for this week’s Group of 20 economic summit here, merchants at the mammoth Coex mall have been told the site will be off-limits to shoppers while it hosts the two-day forum.

“It’s a big deal for South Korea,” the shoe repairman said. “We all must do our part.”

Seoul has summit fever. All around the capital, banners proclaim the gathering of the world’s 20 leading economies as the nation’s biggest showcase since the 2002 soccer World Cup, a chance for this economic powerhouse to show that it has joined the world’s heavyweights.


There’s a G-20 theme song and promotional video, as well as a blizzard of G-20-themed store sales and corporate bashes. Hyundai Motors is even planning to give away the cars used by visiting world leaders. But some say the careful preparations went too far when officials shut down a waste treatment plant, fearing the odor might offend dignitaries.

President Lee Myung-bak has seized upon the summit as a personal showcase and has promised a country starving for international approval that the meetings will provide “a significant change in the global order,” establishing South Korea as a “protagonist in world affairs.”

“What’s more important is the national pride,” said Lee, “because our people’s blood and sweat have made this achievement.”

But some say Seoul’s feel-good approach suffers from a case of historic amnesia. They point to claims of gross overspending and melees between protesters and police that marked G-20 summits in Canada in the summer and Britain last year.

In June, the G-20 summit in Toronto led to the largest mass arrests in Canadian history, spurring accusations of police brutality and numerous class-action lawsuits after black-clad activists went on a rampage, vandalizing businesses and setting police cars on fire.

South Korean officials have pledged to be tough on demonstrators, deploying 60,000 security personnel, including 10,000 riot troops. They have declared a 1.5-mile protest-free zone around the meeting venue, which will be surrounded by a 7-foot-high security fence.

“We will deal with violent protests with a level of strictness never before seen,” one official said in a recent security briefing.

In light of the violence and disruptive demonstrations that have characterized previous international economic summits, critics have called for a permanent site for the meetings, such as the United Nations in New York. Others have suggested deserted islands, even Antarctica.

“Every city has approached its summit with same amount of excitement and selective memory,” said Craig Kielburger, co-founder of the nonprofit group Free the Children, who served as a summit analyst for Canadian television.

“Toronto was an example of what could go wrong and how badly it could go wrong. Six months later, the public inquires are still capturing headlines. The city is still bashing its head, asking how things went so awry.”

The cost of hosting the summit is sizable. Toronto reportedly spent more than a billion dollars to host the G-20 and the more exclusive G-7 event. Seoul’s budget is classified as a security secret, leading some to ask whether the spending has too little oversight.

Planners here call the summit a rare public relations opportunity.

“Everyone knows about our economic growth and that we make great cars. But we haven’t reached that elite-country stage where our voices are heard in major international decisions,” G-20 Seoul spokeswoman Sohn Ji-ae said. “We’re wedged between China and Japan. People tend to overlook us.”

Not every G-20 host city has looked back with regret. Officials in Pittsburgh, which hosted the summit last fall, say the event significantly raised the profile of a city that had been seeking to shed its image as a rusting steel town.

“It was a seminal moment of the city’s history,” said Beverly Morrow-Jones, executive director of marketing for Pittsburgh’s tourism office. “We’d host this event again in a heartbeat.”

Others say such goodwill came at too high a price.

“The policy of over-policing was unbelievably expensive,” said Larry Bogad, a professor of political performance at UC Davis’ Theater and Dance Department, who was a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh during the summit.

“They shut down businesses and did more to damage the economy than any bogeyman of protest and rock-throwing. It was the militarization of a city. And it wasn’t pretty.”

Analysts say that to prove the success of its summit, South Korea must demonstrate that it accomplished the goal of raising the nation’s international visibility.

“If you’re going to put a city through something like this, there better be a tangible output to show people it was worth it,” said Kielburger, the Canadian activist. “Toronto couldn’t do that. Long after the tear gas passed, the question remained: The city went through this, and for what?”

For shoe repairman Ji Soon-dol, it’s already worth it. Fixing dozens of shoes a day is tiring and the economic summit is a good reason for a well-deserved break. “I’m going hiking,” he said with a smile.

Kim works in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.