Seoul gussies up for arriving leaders

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 11:00 AM

SEOUL - Could a city get more excited about exchange rates?

With a verve usually reserved for major sporting events, cultural festivals or something resembling fun, the South Korean capital has amped up its attitude for this week's gathering of the Group of 20, a group of world leaders who will debate things like macroprudential bank regulations and currency policy - not raise the roof with a street party.

Nevertheless, there are banners draped from major buildings, specially developed cocktails and a public plaza set up with displays about global growth and economic policy. Fresh flowers line the streets, covered from a fall chill so they can be unveiled for arriving heads of state, and large, G-20-themed lanterns provide the opening motif of this year's lantern festival on the Cheonggye stream in central Seoul.

It is not so much a testament to any public fascination with the content of the meetings as evidence of the importance that the Korean government, and particularly President Lee Myung-bak, have attached to the event. This is the first time the group - the self-styled board of directors for the global economy - has met outside the Western industrialized world, and Lee has made it a national mission to ensure that the session is, in image and substance, a success.

The effort has included Lee's personal lobbying to keep on track what has developed into an unexpectedly difficult agenda, and a pull-out-the-stops approach to the city's preparations.

"In terms of diplomacy, he has decided this event should be one of the major achievements" of a five-year term marked by stalled talks with North Korea, the economic crisis and the sinking of a warship last spring, said Yoon Young-kwan, an international relations professor at Seoul National University and former foreign affairs minister. "He has invested much time and energy."

"The circumstances have not been so easy," Lee said in an interview this weekend previewing the meeting. A dispute over world currency values expanded beyond the U.S. and China to pose larger risks of economic protectionism, and efforts to overhaul the management of the International Monetary Fund appeared to stall.

Lee personally intervened in the latter issue, appearing at a preparatory meeting of finance ministers last month and urging them to resolve the dispute before their heads of state arrived in Seoul. They did, setting the stage for a notable turnaround: a country with lingering bad memories of strict conditions set by the IMF during a financial crisis in the 1990s helping to broker changes to give the fund more influence and credibility in emerging markets.

It's part of what Lee sees as South Korea's role as a bridge between cultures and economies - a nation culturally close to China and, in recent decades, politically close to the U.S.; an industrialized country with still recent memories of postwar poverty and, it argues, a strong example to offer other developing nations.

World summits often seem more a logistical burden for the host than an opportunity to show off the country, but that isn't the case here.

"This is historically important for Korea in terms of transforming from a peripheral state to a core state in the management of the global economy," said Park Jin, a member of the South Korean Parliament from Lee's ruling party.

"Korea went through a successful democratization and economic modernization at the same time. ... Now we're in a position to coordinate."

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