So How Did Seoul's G20 Go?
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So How Did Seoul’s G20 Go?

A woman in a raincoat struts before a line of riot police during the Toronto G20 summit. Photo by matthewcxlangford from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

With Toronto’s G20 gone but not forgotten, South Korea’s instance of the summit, which ended last Friday, November 12, makes an interesting point of comparison. Aside from the lack of any substantial agreement by world leaders over the biggest issue on the bargaining table, the whole thing appears to have gone pretty well.

Preparation for Seoul’s G20 summit resembled Toronto’s anxious pre-summit buildup. This was to be expected. In some sense, Seoul’s planners had considerably more to worry about than ours did. Toronto’s most hostile neighbour is Quebec, and say what you will about them—at least they don’t have their own cache of nuclear armaments.
In the months before the Summit, North Korea used its state press organs to issue rumblings of dissatisfaction with the South’s tightened security along the border between the two nations, at one point calling the South’s increased military and police presence “slander and provocation.” Recent instances of sudden flareups of gunfire between the two countries weren’t helping anyone relax. And then there was the speculation in the press that Kim Jong-il’s heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, might deem disrupting the Summit to be a really convenient way of announcing to the world’s media his ascension to leadership in Pyongyang.
As for security within Seoul itself, planners who had carefully studied the outcomes of G20 summits in other cities promised a more reasonable approach to the whole problem of preventing violence and mayhem. The security perimeter around Coex, the convention centre where the Summit was held, they said, would be surrounded by protective walls (reportedly 2.2 metres high). The problem with walls, of course, is that the public dislikes them. Few acts of protest are more symbolically pleasing and media-friendly than those that result in the literal tearing down of a barrier. Seoul’s planners appeared to have arrived at a way of making their security perimeter seem less oppressive. They told the Globe that the barriers would be “brightly decorated with colourful pictures.” Protecting these attractively decorated barricades would be a quantity of police and military personnel reported variously as forty, fifty, or sixty thousand, many armed with submachine guns. The Star reported that the security arsenal also included water cannons, armoured vehicles, and “robots.” “Korea is not new to demonstrations, and therefore we’re not new to controlling demonstrations,” a Seoul G20 spokesperson told them. South Korean legislators took the additional step of banning all rallies within a two-metre radius of the Coex. Another temporary law banned rallies after sundown.
When it came to cost, Seoul managed to control its streets for considerably less than the approximately one billion dollars budgeted for security during Toronto’s G20. Several news outlets quote figures of approximately twenty-four to twenty-seven billion won, which translates to around twenty-three million dollars. It’s unclear what, exactly, the reason is for the huge disparity between Seoul’s security budget and Toronto’s: it could be that South Korea uses different accounting methods and that the comparison isn’t, strictly speaking, apples to apples. Or not. London spent about $30 million in 2009, and Japan spent $381 million in 2008, reportedly. The Globe sought an explanation from Chan-Ho Ha, South Korea’s ambassador to Canada, who told them that the cost savings were partly due to the fact that the Seoul police guard would be drawn from the country’s supply of conscripted soldiers and police (military service in South Korea is mandatory for young men). “They are paid very little,” Chan-Ho told the Globe. He said that unlike out-of-town police officers during Toronto’s G20, who slept in hotels, Seoul’s security force would sleep in barracks and tents. Chan-Ho also admitted that the permanent presence of thirty thousand American troops in his country was helping to relieve a certain amount of security expenditure. It wasn’t as though they were going to sit on their rifles while Commander-in-Chief Obama was in town.
And then came the event itself. The largest anti-G20 protest to make English-language news in Seoul happened on the Sunday before the Summit, when a crowd with a police-estimated twenty thousand members took to the streets for what the New York Times described as a “peaceful, almost festive” rally. After sundown, police used pepper spray to get stragglers to disperse.
During the Summit, only one major protest seems to have attracted any headlines. This rally, coordinated by a coalition of progressive groups, was about 3,500-strong, police told the Korea Times, which later reported that “many of the planned rallies were cancelled voluntarily and hundreds of rallies were banned by police for fear they could turn violent.”
North Korea’s pre-Summit sabre rattling ultimately amounted to nothing.
It was an unexciting G20 summit, but judging by what happened here, that’s how we like them.