South Korea is keen to show a friendly, open face to the outside world as it prepares to host a summit of G20 leaders between 11-12 November.
This is the first G20 summit for a country in Asia, and for a non-G7 nation, and a big sprucing-up operation is underway. Authorities say it is a chance to prove that South Korea is a reliable and modern player on the world stage. But with it comes pressure to show that it is up to the job.
Planning for the event has gone on for months. Officials want to make sure the spotlight falls not just on the world leaders and discussion about the state of the global economy, but also on the host country. Some 10,000 overseas visitors are expected.
“In any country or city, when foreigners come all at once, circulation is the biggest problem and security is also an obstacle to overcome. We have been placing emphasis on security, transport and accommodation, to give visitors the strong impression that Seoul is well prepared for this event,” said Oh Se-hoon, Mayor of Seoul.
South Korea is also hoping to benefit economically. One official report estimates the country could earn the equivalent of up to 14 billion euros through the ripple effect. It will not just be the money spent by visitors, but also business deals, contacts and the rise in the country’s image. Some experts calculate the benefits will be the same as selling one million South Korean motor vehicles.
But the country is not banking that money just yet. First it has to make sure the event goes according to plan. Some 50,000 police are being deployed, and the army’s on high alert, even before the summit opens. Authorities talk about threats from international terrorist groups and the risk of violence during anti-globalisation demonstrations.
Our correspondent in Seoul, Seamus Kearney, said:
“Part of the beefing up of security is the setting up of what officials are calling a safety zone of two kilometres around the summit venue. A special barrier is being constructed to keep protesters out, and even our request to film inside the venue was denied. Officials say they want to make sure that the world leaders are kept well away from any possible threat.”
The police will have the power to break up unauthorised demonstrations, and are promising tough action to limit access to the venue. They maintain the restrictions are necessary and in accordance with the law.
Kim Joo-Young is a Senior Inspector with Seoul’s Metropolitan Police Agency: “The event is being held in the centre of the city, so there are all kinds of dangers. If the rallies and demonstrations are violent, the summit will not be able to function safely. We will control a space that’s being kept to a minimum, and only for the necessary period of time, so I don’t think it’s a problem.”
Swat teams will guard the venue, with officers trained in all kinds of situations. One controversial plan to use so-called “sound cannons” to disperse protesters was suspended after complaints from civil rights groups. The Long Range Acoustic Device emits sounds of up to 152 decibels. But officers will still have many other tools at their disposal.
“Our top priority is the safety of VIPs from all over the world, and to minimise the inconvenience of (for) citizens,” adds Kim Joo-Young.
Members of the South Korean government will also be keen to avoid ugly confrontations, at a time when the country is attempting to show it has high ambitions for its emerging economy, according to Sohn Jie-Ae of the G20 Summit’s Presidential Committee.
“We think right now that the G20 is a perfect opportunity to get us to that next level, to show that we are part of a global leadership, part of a global economic forum that will discuss the way that the global economy is shaped in the future. So that is really important to Korea, to be a part of that… and not only a part of that: to be the chair is, for us, a tremendous deal.”
Officials here also say they crave international news coverage that has nothing to do with its tense relations with North Korea. But it is difficult to get away from that, with some kind of significant cross-border incident in the coming days seen as a real possibility. For now, though, the city is keen to bask in the limelight.
This is being described as South Korea’s biggest appearance on the international stage since the Olympic Games were held here in 1988. Under the glare of the international community, Seoul is under enormous pressure to make sure the event runs smoothly, particularly when it comes to security and how it deals with the expected demonstrations.