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The Image of the Toronto Summit
as Seen from Seoul

John Kirton
Co-director, G20 Research Group
November 11, 2010

Some citizens of Toronto still have the impression that the G20 summit they hosted on June 26-27, 2010, was the most costly, most violent and least beneficial in the history of such events. Few outside of Canada share this view. Virtually no one does in Korea, the host of the subsequent G20 summit taking place on November 11-12, 2010. Indeed, four and half months after the Toronto Summit ended, it seems to have been a smart investment, with understandably large costs reaping a far greater reward in the international branding benefits produced, as well as the global policy successes secured. Moreover, even before their own G20 summit starts, Koreans have probably spent more on security, seen more police and protestors, and largely banded with their government to endorse and reinforce the value of summit hosting in branding the country around the world.

In the lead-up to the Seoul Summit, Canadians — or at least their major media — were preoccupied with the action being taken against a few of their police officers for their failure to follow proper procedures in the face of major street protests during the summit in June. Few in the media outside Canada, already moving to cover the coming Seoul Summit, felt this story was newsworthy any way. Many referred to the legacy of the Toronto Summit, largely in favourable or neutral terms. Typical was Sewell Chan of the New York Times, who reported on Wednesday, November 10 — the day before the start of the Seoul Summit — that the Toronto Summit was the place where a previously reluctant U.S. president Barack Obama finally decided to become serious about trade liberalization, by agreeing to implement America’s full free trade agreement with Korea, agreed to under George Bush three years before (Chan 2010).

Standing out by its rarity was the view expressed in a front-page story by Mark McDonald in the International Herald Tribune. While describing preparations for the Seoul Summit as “extravagant,” he concluded that “Korea is not throwing its G20 party on the cheap (although its seems unlikely that Seoul’s budget will surpass the $860 million that Toronto spent to hold the previous summit meeting, last June). The organizers have declined to estimate the total cost, but the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, said in an interview Tuesday the city was spending just $9 million extra … The Toronto Summit was beset with violence and nearly a thousand arrests. Mr. Lee and his lieutenants will be tolerating none of that.”

Missing the attention of the newspapers’ fact checkers was the elementary error about Toronto, where $860 million was not spent to mount just “the previous summit meeting” of the G20 alone but included the G8 one held in nearby Muskoka immediately before. It was largely the federal government, not the one in “Toronto” that “spent” the money, misleading the casual reader to conclude that the $860 million for Toronto was vastly more than the mere $9 million spent so far by the City of Seoul. The Canadian government’s commendable transparency in outlining the maximum possible costs of its two summits well in advance of their taking place, and the fact that the actual costs came to a significantly lower amount, was not complimented or otherwise commented upon. Nor was the Canadian authorities’ kinder, gentler approach to dealing with even violent protesters, relative to that in store at Seoul.

The silence may have stemmed from the fact that even before it started, the Seoul Summit is shaping up in several ways to be a more violent one that Toronto had been. Toronto’s “violence” started only on the day the summit started, whereas Seoul’s started five days earlier. To be sure, no innocent civilians were killed at Toronto or in the days before the Seoul Summit, as happened at the second G20 summit in London in April 2009. However, on Sunday, November 7, as many as 40,000 protestors marched outside City Hall. A full 9,000 police, including riot police, surrounded them. When a group of protestors tried to march down a nearby street, they were stopped by riot police firing pepper spray — a weapon not routinely relied upon at summits in Canada since the APEC leaders meeting in Vancouver in 1997 (Lee 2010). Equipped also with water cannon and police buses, the police detained at least 10 protesters (Reuters 2010). This was but the start of daily protests that would culminate in a mass rally, at a site that was not made known in advice, on the summit’s first day.

These police forces were but a small part of the estimated record 50,000 police officers — a full one third of the national force available — and the “tens of thousands of troops” deployed to protect summit-related venues, along with naval vessels and the coast guard (Reuters 2010). To protect the visiting leaders themselves, Korea created a special unit, erected a security fence over two metres high around the two-kilometre perimeter of the summit site and passed a special law “giving police greater power to break up street rallies and allowing a military presence in public places” (Agence France Presse 2010a, b).


Agence France Presse (2010a), “S. Korea man held over G20 terror threat,” November 7.

Agence France Presse (2010b), “Tens of thousands rally in S. Korea against G20 summit,” November 7.

Chan, Sewell (2010), “U.S. tries to push Seoul on trade deal,” International Herald Tribune, November 10, p. 19.

Lee, Jin-Man (2010), “Activists in South Korea rally against G20 summit, police fire pepper spray,” Associated Press, November 7.

McDonald, Mark (2010), “South Korea preens in glow of G20 meeting,” International Herald Tribune, November 10, p. 1.

Reuters News (2010), “Thousands protest in Seoul before G20 summit,” November 7.

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