Busan's not-so-smooth bid to convince BTS to be ambassador

BTS members pose in front of cameras after being appointed as ambassadors for Busan’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo last Tuesday at their agency HYBE in Yongsan District, central Seoul. [YONHAP]

To win the international bid to host the 2030 World Expo, Busan knew without a doubt it would need Korea’s hottest stars to promote the effort. BTS seemed perfect for the job.

Except no one knew how to get the world’s most popular boy band on board, let alone that it would take over a year to achieve the goal.

Officials with knowledge of the painstaking process recently told the JoongAng Ilbo that key roles were played by Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon, Busan Vice Mayor for Economic Affairs Lee Seong-kwon and Park Sung-hoon, a secretary to President Yoon Suk-yeol who formerly served in Lee’s post.

Last year, President Yoon’s secretary Park is said to have visited BTS member Jimin’s father at his cafe in Busan to convince his son to accept the ambassadorship. They discussed the plan over a glass of wine, after which Jimin’s father relayed the offer to Jungkook’s father, who also responded positively.

Both Jimin and Jungkook were born in Busan.

Busan Mayor Park, who was elected last year in a by-election, used a more official route, constantly reaching out to BTS’s agency HYBE to persuade all seven members to support the city’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo, stressing it was Korea’s largest project in the works.

A Busan official told the JoongAng Ilbo that HYBE asked each member whether they would be interested, and eventually gave the green light once everyone said they were in.

The Busan Metropolitan Government finally announced on June 16 that BTS accepted the city’s offer to serve as promotional ambassador for the 2030 World Expo. After last Tuesday’s appointment ceremony, Jimin’s father was said to have expressed joy about his son's new role, adding that Jimin, too, was elated about it.

Having BTS as promotional ambassador feels like “gaining a thousand troops and horses,” Busan Mayor Park said, in reference to the Korean adage that means feeling fully supported.

As to the controversy surrounding a presidential secretary who appeared to twist BTS member V’s arm to pose for a picture during last week’s appointment ceremony, a high-level official in the Busan Metropolitan Government said the criticism was “unnecessary.”

“It’s regrettable” that the case is inviting so much backlash, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Jang Sung-min, President Yoon’s secretary for policy coordination, was caught on camera approaching V, whispering something to him, and then abruptly grabbing the singer’s hand to lift up his arm while smiling at the cameras. V staggered as he tried to find a comfortable position and apparently seemed taken aback.

Jang was immediately subject to online backlash from BTS fans, who denounced him for treating V like a stage prop to win political points for optics.