food / travel

Long Neglected, South Korea’s Coastal Gems Aim To Shine Again

South Korea is rediscovering its beautiful coastline, and is working hard to turn its sleepy fishing ports into tourist destinations. Yeosu World Expo 2012 is the first among many events aimed at drawing visitors into the region.

Yeosu by night (Mercuries)
Yeosu by night (Mercuries)
Philippe Mesmer

YEOSU - Long neglected by Seoul, the South Jeolla Province is hosting a three-month world expo on the theme "The Living Ocean and Coast." Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea is being held in this South Korean coastal city of 300,000 on the Jeju Strait, hoping its future is as bright as its past.

"Yeosu used to be a gateway between Japan and China", says Bae Yong-tae, deputy governor of the province.

The city was also an important oil terminal. When Korea's modernization started in the 1960s, Yeosu was more or less ignored by the government --so was the South Jeolla Province. "The problem," says journalist Ryan Kim of the daily Dong-A newspaper, "is that dictators Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979, and Chun Doo-hwan, who was president from 1980 to 1988, put their home region first, located on the eastern coast of the peninsula, with cities like Busan, Puhan or Ulsan."

Politically speaking, the province has always had the reputation of being a rebel. It was the starting point of a huge uprising against the Japanese occupation in 1929; it then incurred the wrath of South Korean leaders' harsh repression in 1948, during the struggle against communism, and again in 1980, when the army intervened in Gwanju against the movement for the democratization of the country.

The past has taken its toll on the region, whose population is currently slowly declining. The local fishing industry, which supplies 51% of the country's needs, is employing more and more Chinese sailors.

From fishing port to futuristic destination

But the development of the South Jeolla Province has now become a priority for the government, which has decided to bet heavily on tourism. The 2012 World Expo, which boasts a $1.9 billion budget and 106 attending countries is the perfect example of this new approach. More than 10 million visitors are expected to see the expo.

It took five years for the sparsely populated and heavily polluted industrial site to be developed into a tourist destination. A new high-speed railway now connects Yeosu to Seoul in 2h40. Additionally, the old sea route between the port city and Fukuoka in Japan was also revived for the expo.

Hopefully, this will be enough to bring in waves of tourists, who will then be able to enjoy a giant 6000 ton aquarium as well as a digital gallery with a 218 meter-long and 30 meter-high screen. But the main attraction is the Big-O where many large-scale events and performances will take place. "The event is meant to emphasize the importance of oceans to humanity, and the crisis that threatens them due to the overexploitation of resources and pollution," explains Kim Keun-soo, the expo's secretary general.

Visitors of the international event are also given the opportunity to discover the wealth of a region that does its best to enhance its natural and cultural heritage. From the site, you can access Odong Island, dubbed the "Island of Love," by foot. Entirely covered with wood, Odong is the gateway to the Hallyeohaesang national maritime park, and a very pleasant place for a walk.

From Odong, a shuttle boat takes you through some of the 365 islands that surround Yeosu, including Dolsan Island, where the Hyangiram (meaning "facing the sun") hermitage stands, in the shadows of the island's camellias. It is one of four major Korean monasteries erected in honor of the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Perched on the heights of Mount Geumosan, the hermitage is difficult to reach but the view of the sea is unique. At the feet of the monastery, the village of fishermen and oyster farmers is also worth stopping by to get a taste of the local flavors --including mussels and sun-dried oysters.

Going up the coast, visitors will discover the tea plantations of Boesong, a city whose green tea is renowned throughout Korea. Grown on the hillsides, the fields merge into forests of cedars and paint a landscape of great elegance –even more beautiful on hazy days.

Finally, there is the Suncheon Bay ecological park. Caught between the Yeosu peninsula in the east and Goheung in the west, the marsh area –protected since 2006-- offers a rare ecosystem. Covered with reeds, it offers visitors an impressive variety of migratory birds, mostly hooded cranes, but also Chinese egrets or spoonbills.

Eager to capitalize on this treasure, Suncheon --which also houses the medieval and fortified village of Nagan--will host an exhibition on the gardens of the world from April to October 2013. This should serve to hearten those who are concerned about the waning of interest in the region, once the Yeosu Expo 2012 draws to a close.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – Mercuries

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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