Could the meetings industry be the catalyst for unification between North and South Korea? Stuart Wood investigates.
They might be the most closely guarded meeting rooms in the world.
In the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea, there sit two bright blue buildings, in a tiny chunk of land walled off by trees. This is Panmunjom or Truce Village, and it straddles the de facto border of the two countries, demarcated by a line in the sand.
In April 2018, Panmunjom was the site of an inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. In June of this year, US President Donald Trump also visited the site for an impromptu meeting with the North Korean leader, taking several steps into North Korean territory and shaking hands with Chairman Kim.
Understandably, access to Panmunjom is highly limited. Just two weeks before Trump’s visit, CMW is in South Korea for a tour of the country’s MICE and hospitality venues, and our trip to the DMZ is scheduled to take us to Panmunjom. But with just a day’s notice, our tour guide breaks the news that our visit has been declined, and we won’t be able to take a step into the most secretive nation on the planet.
Tensions, it seems, are still high.
Bridging the line in the sand
24 hours earlier, we are sitting in the main hall of Incheon’s Songdo ConvensiA in South Korea, for the opening ceremony of the Korea MICE Expo 2019. Kim Kyung-sung, President of the South and North Korea Sports Exchange Association, is speaking about the possibility of bridging that line in the sand with a weapon more powerful than military might: business.
“The MICE industry can offer a platform for exchange and co-operation between North and South Korea,” he says. “I believe we will be able to build an economic community with North Korea going forwards.”
It’s a sentiment which is shared by Han Shinja, Vice-Chair of the Korea MICE Association. Han was part of the team which helped to organise the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, and believes MICE can be a crucial diplomatic tool for bringing people together. “We have to make an effort to understand North Korean MICE, to exchange with them,” she says. “If we can do so, our industry can usher in a new era of co-operation and communication.”
The idea is a fascinating one: could North Korea, a country whose repressive policies have left it isolated and with a crippled, highly sanctioned economy, be gradually opened up by MICE business? Could this most inaccessible of countries become an actual tourist destination, and how many people would want to visit, if convinced they would be safe?
Stephanie, our tour guide, speaks candidly about the divide between North and South Korea. For many it remains an open wound, splitting relatives not just across an impassable border, but also across 60 years of estrangement. “In South Korea, we all pray for unification,” she says. “But we know that it will not come from war. If the US, or another country, were to invade North Korea and topple Chairman Kim’s regime, the country would be left in a state of economic disaster.
“The only way we can unify the two nations is to slowly trickle in business, and forge connections between North and South.”
Follow the leader
If the MICE and tourism industries can offer a potential road towards economic development for the North, then South Korea can serve as a shining example of where that road leads.
CMW’s tour of the country begins in the capital – a vibrant, technologically advanced and highly organised metropolis. Seoul is a wealthy city, and its greater metropolitan area is home to 9.75 million people, almost a fifth of South Korea’s population. The city contains the headquarters of international South Korean businesses like Samsung and Hyundai, and their company logos are emblazoned on the sides of neatly arranged and uniformly designed apartment blocks, constructed with corporate sponsorship.
“A late-night karaoke session, ideally with some chimek (fried chicken and beer) is an essential Seoul experience.”
Our tour takes us to the 123rd floor of Lotte World Tower, the sixth tallest building in the world, and tallest in South Korea.
From the observatory here, the geometric rows of Seoul’s many business districts are slotted into place like tiny Tetris pieces. The tower offers meeting rooms in the Signiel hotel between floors 76 and 101, as well as a large convention space on the 31st floor.
Continuing the trend for scale, Coex – South Korea’s busiest convention centre – finished constructing its latest attraction in 2017: a public library containing a 13-metre tall bookshelf and 50,000 books. The Starfield Library is located in the lower floors of a building which offers 55 meeting rooms with thumb-print recognition, as well as cafes, restaurants, a casino and two connected hotels.
As CMW visits, the very early stages of construction are also beginning for the new, 105-floor Hyundai Global Business Center, which is located just outside Coex. It is set to finish in 2023, containing a 70,000sqm convention centre with six floors. These new facilities will add even more spectacle to the already bustling, world-famous Gangnam district.
Seoul’s skyscraping business ambitions are dizzying, but one of its biggest attractions is how down to earth the residents are. We’ve rarely visited a safer or more spacious capital city, or one more welcoming to international delegates.
A late-night karaoke session, ideally with some chimek (fried chicken and beer) is an essential Seoul experience for visitors. We spend our final evening in the capital exploring the neon-soaked streets of the Songpa district, before belting out a terrible rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’ after a few too many rice wines. Perfect.
Beer festivals on Cooking Pot Mountain
Leaving Seoul behind, our second stop is the coastal city of Busan, on the country’s south-eastern tip.
Translated literally, Busan means “Cooking Pot Mountain”, a name derived from the shape of the peak which sits behind its main port – one of the busiest in the world. The city, which snakes around a number of mountains on South Korea’s rocky coast, is a hub of both industry and culture. It hosts the Busan International Film Festival every year inside the mind-bending constructivist architecture of Busan Cinema Centre, and is also home to South Korea’s famous Haeundae Beach.
MICE is a thriving industry in Busan, which contains a number of unique venues and is the fastest growing convention city in the world. The stunning Nurimaru APEC House was constructed in 2005 to host the APEC Summit, an important political meeting between countries in the Asia-Pacific region. World leaders including George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin gathered around the ornate roundtable on the venue’s top floor, which breaks out into a series of lounges with 360-degree views of the harbour.
The Busan Exhibition and Convention Centre (BEXCO) is another important venue for the city, having played host to 4.4m visitors in 2018 across a large number of conferences and exhibitions. It contains a total 26,000sqkm of event space, and is currently in the process of bidding for the 2030 World Expo. As CMW arrives, however, the venue is in the early stages of set-up for something a bit different: a craft beer festival.
Beer festivals prove to be a recurring theme in Busan. The next stop on our tour takes us to KNN Tower Plaza, where we are dropped off at the Centum Beer Festival. We get a taste of authentic Korean hospitality as a group of drunk businessmen come over to toast our drinks, before we make our way to the stage at the front of the festival.
The bright lights and glitter of K-pop are in full effect here, where a crowd of adoring fans know all the lyrics and choreographed dance moves to a series of artists. The highlight, without question, is Psy Burger – an overweight version of the ‘Gangnam Style’ star who smashes through a series of cover songs, while a five-metre-tall inflatable likeness of himself wobbles about on stage.
Psy Burger is an unstoppable crowd pleaser, and delivers a seemingly endless encore to a delirious audience, threatening to end the set after each song. But the hits just keep coming, and Psy Burger gives us a suitably glamorous send-off to our time exploring Busan.
An international outlook
At every turn, the technological advancements of South Korea are a stark contrast with the North. When our tour bus takes us up to the DMZ, North Korea is identifiable by its barren hillsides: the country’s residents still cut wood for fire, having limited access to electricity.
But South Korea’s north-western city of Incheon, which is host of the 2019 Korea MICE Expo and the country’s main gateway airport, is full of the spirit of international collaboration. The city’s Songdo district, full of shiny new skyscrapers and cultural centres, is a perfect example of how foreign business can lead to economic prosperity.
The South Korean government has designated the region as a tax haven, called the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). International businesses which move their headquarters to IFEZ are not taxed, as part of an incentive to drive growth in this upcoming region of the country. IFEZ, which has been ranked as the world’s safest city, is home to a diverse group of residents from many continents.
The MICE Bureau at the Incheon Tourism Organisation says international MICE business is at the top of the agenda in the region. A spokesperson commented: “MICE business has great importance to Incheon, since it is the place where MICE first started in Korea. Our country’s first expressway, and it’s first western-style hotel, were based in Incheon.
“It is Incheon City’s ultimate goal to become a representative MICE destination in Northeast Asia, with an international business-friendly environment. MICE business can stimulate the local economy with its huge economic impact.”
A brighter future
The city of Incheon serves as a microcosm for South Korea as a whole, demonstrating how the country has managed to build a thriving economy, and a varied MICE industry, by working closely with international governments and businesses.
International delegates looking to host an event in South Korea are spoiled for choice, whether they want an intimate, premium meeting experience in Busan’s Nurimaru APEC House, or a large-scale conference in Seoul’s Coex. This wealth of choice is the result of the country’s open-door policy to international business, and demonstrates the power of the MICE industry to serve as a catalyst for development.
If North Korea’s supreme leader were to take notice, perhaps there is hope that future meetings between the North and the South could be done with a little bit less security – and that the country might be able to change its economic destiny.