South Korea ready for G20

Tired of living in the shadow of their northern neighbours, South Koreans prepare to showcase their growing economy dur

South Koreans have long felt that the world only sees them through the lens of the conflict with their unruly neighbour to the north.

That is why, for the democratic nation of 48 million, the G20 summit offers an opportune moment to enjoy the spotlight alone.

“Korea will come into global focus as a host of the G20 summit and, by taking on that responsibility, will become a genuinely developed nation,” South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-Bak, said.

That South Korea is capable of being a leader among industrialized nations, is an impression the country is eager to leave with the 32 visiting heads of government and international organizations.

Already Korean officials have been applauded for getting the world’s finance ministers to agree to try and avoid a currency war in pre-G20 meetings held late last month.  A final declaration is expected during the summit itself.

How successful it will be in gaining consensus on other thorny issues, such as trade imbalances, will be the challenge, especially with analysts predicting that this will likely be the most contentious meeting of the G20 to date.

But South Korea is certainly showing it is willing to try. And there is a lot at stake.

The global economic crisis of 2009 has marked a new world order, where Asian nations are gaining a greater say in international affairs.

The fact that South Korea is the first nation in the Asia region to host the G20, underlines this readjustment of power.

The International Monetary Fund, long considered the dominion of western nations, has given the approval for more voting rights to be given to emerging nations. Korea and China are some of those that will benefit.

Korean officials have openly shared the hope that their country’s own experiences will offer lessons on how the world can recover during this period of financial uncertainty.

By all accounts, its record of economic achievement is certainly impressive. In the 1960s, following a devastating war with the North, the annual income per capita was less than $100.  Today the average is around $20,000.

South Korea also endured a potentially crippling economic crisis in the late 90s, but emerged as one of the world’s largest exporters with brands like LG, Samsung and Hyundai becoming household names worldwide.

By 2011, the powerhouse is predicted to move up a notch to become the world’s 13th largest economy.

That the nation is pulling out all stops to look good for this two-day summit is readily apparent with a stroll through Seoul’s downtown core.

The streets are spotless, cleaned by thousands of government employees, who in recent days were ordered to leave their desks and roll up their sleeves to pitch in and everywhere, massive welcoming banners hang from the city’s towering office buildings.

But perhaps the most profound example of the importance placed on this event in the minds of South Koreans, is that even seven year olds in school are being given lessons on currency trading.

“It is true that we did host the Olympic Games in 1988,” said an information volunteer, “but the G20 is being seen as far more important.”

Lee’s government has also promised to make this meeting free of the type of violence that has plagued past occasions.

50,000 police officers, a third of the country’s force, have been deployed on the streets. Soldiers patrolling the border with North Korea have been put on the country’s highest alert.

And if Sunday’s demonstration by the country’s traditionally militant union workers is any indication, the government has the situation well-in-hand.

Following a government-approved protest in the city centre by tens of thousands, riot police successfully blocked repeated attempts by unionists to march through the streets. 

While pepper spray was used in some instances, and there were a handful of arrests, the police were able to peacefully disperse the crowds.

Still, the government is under attack for limiting free speech.

Authorities report they have banned more than 5000 foreigners from entering the country, including 6 Filipino activists who were to attend a parallel civil society assembly to protest the G20 meeting.

Kim Young-hoon, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) charges that the Lee administration is biased towards big business, and does not have the interest of labour workers at heart.

The KCTU, the most vocal of the country’s unions, has been embroiled in a dispute centred on the belief that President Lee is attempting to get rid of the unions in favour of creating a more “positive” environment for foreign investors.

“Of course Lee Myung-Bak is trying to weaken us. He has taken a business friendly approach, and our membership is down to less than 10 per cent. It worries us because we are losing the balance between worker’s rights and the power of profit,” says Kim.

Lee has denied such claims. And officials have stressed, the unions are simply too disruptive a force, and their influence needs to be reined in.

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